Sunday, April 21, 2002

FCC rules make video description more available

        Television is a unifying element of our culture. We quote lines from Seinfeld and from Friends, reference furniture or clothing or gestures we've seen on favorite programs, and talk about movies and documentaries everywhere we go.

        I've always loved movies and have had my share of favorite TV series through the years. But television, like everything else with technology, has become more sophisticated in the last few decades. Rare is the program today that can be fully appreciated based only on dialogue.

        Video description, begun in 1990 by WGBH and now broadcast on more than 150 PBS stations, provides an additional audio track, a verbalized description of those elements of a program that can only be detected visually.

        Throughout the '90s, however, it looked as though the concept of video description might not go beyond public television.

        With the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress instructed the FCC to study video description and make television more accessible to all people. Last year, then FCC chairman William Kennard issued regulations aimed at doing precisely that for the estimated 12 million American viewers unable to see the details on the TV screen.

        It's been a stormy year — with industry giants attempting to have the regulations reversed or delayed — but April 1 those regulations became effective. Specifically, all large network affiliates are required to add description to 50 hours of prime-time and/or children's programming every three months. While a few networks added video description long before that date (Nickelodeon's Rugrats, for instance, and about 100 movies on the Turner Classic Movie channel) many networks have been adding description like the proverbial wildfire in the past few weeks.

        In addition to WCET and Turner Classic Movies, Tristate viewers canfind video description on Lifetime, USA, TNT,TBS, Nickelodeon and Fox. Programs include movies, TV dramas (Division, Law and Order, and Boston Public) and comedy (Bernie Mac, the Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle.) CBS' Jag and CSI are scheduled to add description in May, and the announcements just keep coming.

        The problem is that so few who can benefit from this new programming are aware of it or know how to access it. Of the 16 blind or visually impaired people I spoke with for this column, only three are enjoying video description; three had never heard of it; and the rest knew it existed but didn't know how to get it on their televisions.

        Descriptive video is broadcast on the SAP (Second Audio Program) channel of all newer TVs and VCRs. In most instances, the SAP feature must be selected visually from an onscreen menu. (One exception to this is a line of VCRs made by Zenith that offer a spoken accompaniment to the visual menus.)

        For cable and satellite systems, selecting Spanish from the audio or language menu will activate the SAP feature. This, too, can only be accomplished by someone able to see the television screen to make the selections.

        “Description,” says Mike Voigt, a Milford information addict who is blind, “is the life blood for blind people who want to understand everything around us.”

        Well, besides that, it's just plain fun.

        For schedules of programs carrying descriptive video, check, which offers schedules for PBS, Fox, and Turner Classic Movies;; and Or call (800) 333-1203.

        E-mail Past columns at


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