BOB GARFIELD: At the FCC a tug of war is beginning over rules passed this month. At issue described video for the blind. These are narratives that can be fed on a special audio channel to describe the nonverbal on the screen. The industry is opposed. And that's not surprising.
But the blind themselves are not unanimous in their support either. On the Media's Neal Carruth reports.
[CLIP FROM SIXTH SENSE]
NEAL CARRUTH:Watching a film like The Sixth Sense is difficult for Margaret Pfanstiehl whose vision is limited by a degenerative disease called Retinitis pigmentosa. Pfanstiehl is a 68-year-old grandmother of three and a pioneer in the development of video description.
She asks you to imagine life with little or not vision.
MARGARET PFANSTIEHL:Turn on your television set to some drama, something like that that's not very talky, and shut your eyes. You'll find out how much you're confused. Gee, it sounded like they were in a kitchen, and I heard this funny noise and a door slam. Something must have happened but I really don't know what.
Oh, now the music is getting very, very ominous. Gosh, there must be some trouble, what do you suppose is happening.
[MUSIC, VIDEO DESCRIPTION]
NEAL CARRUTH:Pfanstiehl first developed description for live theater performances in Washington, D.C. In the early eighties she applied her technique to television, providing descriptions for the public TV programs Nova and American Playhouse.
First the descriptions were broadcast on a radio frequency, but when stereo TV's became widely available a few years later, video description could be provided on the TV's secondary audio channel or SAP.
Now video description is carried on programs on more than 150 PBS stations.
Former FCC Chairman William Kennard believes it ought to be more widely available.
WILLIAM KENNARD: It will allow more Americans to experience television which is a tremendously unifying force in our society that, that all of us should be able to participate in.
NEAL CARRUTH: In 1996 the FCC was directed to study video description and report to Congress. The Commission noted that neither commercial broadcasts nor cable nor satellite television had taken enough initiative in this area. Therefore, the FCC proposed rules to spur some action. William Kennard.
WILLIAM KENNARD: The market is just not serving on its own the needs of blind people in America. And so it's very, very important that government play an enlightened role to step in and get the ball rolling, get it started.
The rules call on the larger network affiliates to provide 50 hours of described prime time and/or children's programming every three months. Large cable systems were required to provide the same service on their top five non-broadcast networks, currently Lifetime, TBS, TNT, USA and Nickelodeon.
[CLIP WITH VIDEO DESCRIPTION]
NEAL CARRUTH: The new rules were adopted by the FCC on a three to two vote. Commissioner Michael Powell, since elevated to Chairman by President Bush, opposed the rules. So did the biggest industry trade groups, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association, and the Motion Picture Association of America. None of these organizations was willing to comment for this report, but their filings with the FCC lay out their positions.
They said the 1996 Telecommunications Act did not authorize the FCC to impose these rules. Former FCC Chairman Kennard disagrees.
WILLIAM KENNARD: Congress delegated to this agency the responsibility of making television accessible to people who are blind. And we did just that.
I'm pleased and proud that we did it in a meaningful way.
NEAL CARRUTH:But it's not just the trade groups who oppose the new rules. So does one of the two largest consumer groups for blind Americans, the National Federation of the Blind.
MARK MAURER: We believe that that although it may be nice to have descriptive video of entertainment, it isn't of nearly as high a priority, and we think that the information that is available on television is vastly more than the entertainment that is available on television for blind people to have.
NEAL CARRUTH: Mark Maurer is President of the NFB. His organization asked the FCC to start over and place the emphasis on news and information programming. The FCC should begin, says Maurer, by mandating description of visual information like phone numbers and captains.
He also raised another issue, whether video description can really describe the video.
MARK MAURER:You can say, for example, that you have a sunset on the screen. Take a blind person who has never seen anything, what is a sunset anyway. It's a little like trying to describe--in written words what a symphony would sound like to somebody who's deaf. I don't think you should try because I don't think it's practical to do it.
I think there ought to be magnificent-- [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] --freedom in putting out pieces of art.
[MUSIC, VIDEO DESCRIPTION]
NEAL CARRUTH:The Motion Picture Association said the new rules raise first amendment concerns by mandating speech and the modification of existing programs. Commissioner, now Chairman Michael Powell agrees that descriptive video is, quote, "creative work" requiring producers, scripts and actors. And his objection leads directly to another industry complaint, that description would cost too much.
Charlie Crawford of the American Council of the Blind, the other major blind consumer group, says cost is not a real issue because these technical advances are inevitable.
CHARLIE CRAWFORD: These kinds of amazing inventions that have happened over the last couple of decades are clearly pointing the way towards a much more inclusive society at a very inexpensive price.
NEAL CARRUTH: The video description rules don't take effect until next year, assuming they can withstand an unsupportive FCC Chairman and possible court challenges.
And even if they do survive, the rules won't last long because they don't apply to digital transmission which everyone on the TV industry must adopt by 2006.
For On the Media, this is Neal Carruth in Washington.