Audio description on TV in the US

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Legislation on audio description on TV in the United States was introduced in 2010, after setbacks to audio description such as the switch from analogue to digital television, and the resistance of the Motion Picture Association to audio description on TV.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 which restores rules set out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandating audio description on television.

The outcomes of the law include:

  • After 1 year, the top 4 broadcast networks and top 5 cable channels in the top 25 most populated markets will each have to screen 4 hours of audio described programs per week.
  • After 2 years, the FCC will report to Congress on audio description.
  • After 4 years, the FCC can increase audio description to 7 hours a week on the 9 channels.
  • After 6 years, the FCC will apply audio description requirements to the 60 most populated markets.
  • After 9 years, the FCC will report to Congress on the need to extend audio description to additional markets.
  • After 10 years, the FCC can expand audio description to 10 new markets annually to achieve 100% nationwide coverage.

In July 2000, the Federal Communications Commission ordered the four major television networks and the five biggest cable networks to show fifty hours of audio described programs per quarter by April 2002. The Federal Communications Commission's power to do this was challenged by the Motion Picture Association, and the challenge was eventually upheld. Following that, some networks reduced audio described programming, or ceased to provide it altogether.

The switch to digital

Prior to analogue switch-off in the United States, audio description on free-to-air television was broadcast on a second audio channel (called the Second Audio Program or SAP). Most televisions and VCRs manufactured in the United States since 1990 could access the Second Audio Program.

After the switch to digital, no legislation was introduced to ensure that digital broadcasters transmit audio description as a secondary channel, and no standard for receiver manufacturers was developed. Although there is anecdotal evidence that some digital receivers (including some subscription TV converter boxes) are capable of receiving audio description, the situation remains far from clear.

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