FCC Reminder About Conveying Emergency Information in an Accessible Manner to All TV Audience Members

The FCC last week released a Public Notice reminding TV stations and other video programming providers, including cable and satellite television providers, of their obligation to make emergency information accessible for all viewers.  With a few tweaks, the reminder is very similar to what the FCC has issued in past years.  This year, the reminder added smoke from Canadian wildfires as a possible emergency about which stations might be distributing important safety information, joining a list that was only two years ago updated to include pandemics.  The FCC notice is to remind video providers of their obligations to make emergency information accessible to all of their audience, even those with visual or auditory disabilities. 

The FCC notice, in addition to wildfires and pandemics, provides examples of the kinds of emergencies that the rules are intended to cover – including “tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, icing conditions, heavy snows, widespread fires, discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, industrial explosions, civil disorders, school closings and changes in school bus schedules resulting from such conditions, and warnings and watches of impending changes in weather.”  The Commission considers the “critical details” about such emergencies to include “specific details regarding the areas that will be affected by the emergency, evacuation orders, detailed descriptions of areas to be evacuated, specific evacuation routes, approved shelters or the way to take shelter in one’s home, instructions on how to secure personal property, road closures, and how to obtain relief assistance.”

The obligations are intended to cover not just the area where the emergency is occurring, but also in adjacent areas that may be affected by the effects of the emergency – and the obligations extend not just to the immediate time of the emergency but also to information about dealing with its aftermath.  What do these rules require?

To accommodate those who are blind or visually impaired, the rules require that the video provider, during a regularly scheduled newscast or a newscast that interrupts regular programming, present any visual information about emergency conditions in an aural manner as well.  In addition, for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, the FCC requires that emergency information that is provided aurally also be provided visually.  This is often done through open captions but sometimes is even presented by whiteboards or other handwritten information by stations providing fast-breaking information.  When open captions are used, they should not block other closed captioning that may already be in use in that program. 

If information is presented outside a newscast in, for instance, a crawl on the bottom of the screen during an entertainment program, that crawl must be preceded by aural tones alerting the audience that they can tune to a secondary audio stream (on a “SAP channel”) provided by the TV station giving the same information as conveyed by the crawl (see our articles hereherehere and here about that obligation).  While the FCC recently granted the industry an extension of time, until November 26, 2024, to come up with ways to aurally convey information about visual but non-textual emergency information that is broadcast during non-news programs (e.g., weather radar), the rules requiring that textual emergency information be made available on that SAP channel continue in effect. 

The Public Notice sets out more information about these requirements, including specifics for MVPDs (including cable systems).  It also suggests that any emergency information be provided in ways that those with any sort of cognitive impairment be able to understand what is being conveyed.  In this time when there seem to be human-caused and natural disasters occurring almost every day, all video providers should carefully review this public notice and the FCC rules setting these obligations.

Courtesy Broadcast Law Blog