FCC Delays Requirement for Aural Representation of Visual Emergency Information on Secondary Audio Stream

By Chris Imlay, SBE General Counsel

On May 26, 2015, FCC issued a memorandum opinion and order addressing two petitions for waiver of Section 79.2(b)(2)(ii) of the FCC’s rules, which requires among other things that emergency information provided visually during non-newscast video programming be made audibly accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired through the use of the secondary audio stream. Broadcasters refer to this requirement as the “Audible Crawl Rule.”

The FCC granted a waiver of the rule for hybrid cable systems if they provide free equipment to analog customers who are blind or visually impaired to enable access to the digital secondary audio stream. The FCC also waived the compliance deadline for analog-only cable systems until June 12, 2018.

For broadcasters, the FCC granted only a six-month waiver of the compliance deadline. However, the FCC agreed to waive the requirement to aurally describe visual but non-textual emergency information, such as maps or other graphic displays for a period of 18 months. Broadcasters are, however, permitted to exclude school closings information from the Audible Crawl Rule. These three waiver provisions were granted at the behest of the National Association of Broadcasters in a March 27, 2015 petition for temporary partial exemption and limited waiver. The NAB Petition was strongly supported by SBE.

The six-month waiver (until Nov, 30, 2015) of the compliance deadline for video programming distributors of all sorts to comply with the Audible Crawl Rule by providing aurally on the secondary audio stream emergency information presented visually in non-newscast programming, was granted as a matter of necessity. The FCC was convinced that the technical means necessary for broadcasters to aurally transcribe emergency information text crawls on the secondary audio stream were not available from manufacturers in time for broadcasters to obtain and implement them by May 26, 2015, which had been the deadline. The FCC said it was persuaded by the NAB and the other broadcast industry comments that a six-month extension of the compliance deadline was needed for broadcasters to purchase, install, and test equipment and systems that will effectively communicate emergency information to their viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

About this, the SBE had noted that a 2013 report and order and further notice of proposed rulemaking in Docket 12-107 established rules for Text-to-Speech (TTS). These rules state that the three-beep alerting tones will be transmitted on both the main and secondary audio programming (SAP) channels. Currently, devices used to produce alerts and emergency crawls only provide alerting beeps on one set of audio channels. Also, the current rules state that the alerting tones are required on both audio channels. However, the actual text-to-speech would be required only on the SAP channel. The TTS audio cannot be mixed or ducted over program audio. Rather, it must completely override it. This override requires a complex series of switching audio paths. The problem is compounded by the fact that most modern stations use embedded audio in their Serial Digital Interface (SDI) video paths. In that circumstance, audio would have to be disembedded; switched to its proper path; and then re-embedded into the video signal for its output to the transmitter. Some stations may choose to run separate AES audio paths. However, this does not lessen the need to perform complex switching of audio, given the language of the current rules.

Few stations, however have one device that performs all its emergency crawl and alerting needs. A station may have one device that performs EAS tests and warnings; another that handles weather information; and a third that handles news bulletins. Vendors for these products have not to date created devices or sub-systems to perform the TTS required by the Commission. At the present time, no industry or other standard, voluntary or mandatory has been established to determine how each vendor will perform and execute the TTS functions. Stations therefore need time to test and evaluate the specifications of each vendor’s product to engineer a switching solution for each particular station configuration. Vendors are only just now making products available for testing or purchase.

With respect to the FCC’s 18-month waiver of the requirement to aurally describe visual but non-textual emergency information (e.g., maps or other graphic displays), in part for the reasons stated above, the FCC agreed with the NAB, SBE and others that radar maps and similar moving graphics do not contain text files that can be converted to speech and, therefore, an automated TTS system cannot be used to aurally describe them at the present time. Technical solutions to this can be developed within the Disability Advisory Committee. This is timely because visual but nontextual emergency information is generally duplicative of emergency information contained in an accompanying on-screen crawl, which can be aurally transcribed on the secondary audio stream.

About this, the SBE said in comments that there is currently no mechanism to perform this function. Compliance with the requirement by the former deadline would have required stations to input written descriptions of the map or graphics into the crawl information for the TTS to convert to audio. Most systems automatically produce crawl information either from the National Weather Service (NWS) or from the creator of an EAS alert. To insert the written descriptions, stations would have to manually modify crawl alerts and emergency text information. Currently, that would require manually retyping alerts and emergency messages. The additional time was needed to modify systems to perform those functions and to create new work flows so the requirement can be implemented. Stations in smaller markets that do not yet require video description service (VDS) will have to build these systems in their plants to allow the TTS service to be used. Such an added requirement could not have been accomplished by the former May 26, 2015 deadline under the circumstances.

Finally, the requirement to include school closings information aurally on the secondary audio stream was waived pending reconsideration of the requirement in Docket 12-107 pursuant to a further notice of proposed rule making released earlier in May. Broadcasters argued that an alternative solution is needed because audible crawls of school closings would continue for long periods of time and preclude other programming. The SBE said that this is because all TTS announcements must be repeated twice as they are crawled across the screen. Furthermore, school closing crawls in particular have two inherent characteristics that make implementing this problematic as a practical matter: 1) they are very long; and 2) they are often changed and updated in real time. According to the rules now in place, every change or update to school closing information would have to be announced twice. While this can be performed by the system, it makes the SAP channel otherwise unusable as a source of audio programming for viewers using it as a second language channel or for sight-impaired people to use it as a video description service (VDS) channel. The TTS announcements could possibly last for periods of 30 or 45 minutes, or even an hour at a time.

The short waiver periods granted by the FCC show that the Commission is committed to implementing these rules as soon as possible. The FCC waited until the very last second to grant the Audio Crawl Rule waivers, but the relief from the waivers is important because there was in fact no way to comply with the requirements as a technical matter. It remains to be seen if the situation improves markedly in the next six months.

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