FCC Updates Audio Description Requirements, Networks; Offers ENT Toolkit

Nov 10 2020 David Titmus
Headphones resting on a microphone stand in an audio description recording booth

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FCC Expands Audio Description

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted an order expanding its audio description requirements to an additional 40 designated market areas (DMAs) over the next four years.

Man seated at a desk recording audio descriptionThe FCC currently requires certain broadcast stations in the top 60 DMAs to provide access to audio described programming. The new requirements will phase in an additional 10 DMAs each year for four years, beginning January 1, 2021. In 2023, the commission will determine whether to continue expanding audio description requirements to an additional 10 DMAs per year beyond the top 100 DMAs.

Audio description makes video programming more accessible by inserting narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements during natural pauses in the program’s dialogue, ensuring that individuals who are blind or with low vision can be better understand and appreciate a program. The description track can be found on a secondary audio channel available on most television sets and accessible through the television’s menu.

In the United States, the FCC requires 87.5 hours per quarter of audio described content on primetime or children’s programming on the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) and the top five cable networks (see below) that broadcast a significant amount of prerecorded content.

VITAC provides this service to a variety of national networks and video producers. All of our audio described scripts are written by professionally trained scriptwriters (real, creative individuals, not automated software) with decades of industry experience. We chose our voice talent based on each video, and make sure the narration is consistent throughout a series. Our descriptions are mixed by a team of professional audio engineers and quality checked by both sighted and blind professionals for completeness and clarity.

Audio Described Networks

The FCC last week announced changes to its list of the top five national non-broadcast networks subject to audio description requirements.

Beginning July 1, 2021, the new top five national non-broadcast networks, based on Nielsen ratings, likely will be TLC, HGTV, Hallmark, History, and TBS. The FCC updates its list of the top five non-broadcast networks – cable and satellite channels – every three years to account for changes in ratings. The non-broadcast networks currently subject to the audio description requirements are USA, HGTV, TBS, Discovery, and History.

(Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and ESPN actually rank higher in terms of Nielsen ratings than the networks mentioned above, but these networks typically file for an exemption from the FCC’s audio described rules as they provide less than 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time programming that is not live or near-live.)

DAC Recommendations

The FCC’s Disability Advisory Committee (DAC) approved recommendations for best practices for live news captions using Electronic Newsroom Technique (ENT) captioning and for creating audio description.

  • Geared towards broadcasters, the ENT toolkit includes ENT rules, examples of ENT captions, and additional resources. It is provided in both English and Spanish.
  • The audio description overview summarizes some of the considerations taken into account in the development of audio description, including tips on writing, voicing, and editing described programs.

What’s in a Name?

The FCC also will replace the term “video description” with “audio description” throughout its rules, implementing a Disability Advisory Committee recommendation and aligning terminology with that used by consumers and other federal agencies.