Blind Americans are at risk of losing a unique service that helps them do the unthinkable: watch TV. Over the past two years, support for narration that allows blind people to follow prime time TV shows has eroded and, in the process, aggravated a passionate schism in the narrow world of blind-advocacy groups.
"TV, for better for worse, is very important in our society," says Margaret Pfanstiehl, president of Metropolitan Washington Ear, an advocacy group for the visually impaired. "To be cut off is a form of isolation."
Federal funding for narration of the prime time shows that much of America takes for granted was phased out in October. Congress mandated that the funds, about $1 million a year, be used for educational and public-affairs programs only—no entertainment—after learning that a companion program for the deaf was used to caption Baywatch
and Montel Williams.
The cutbacks on narrated shows have persuaded two senior lawmakers to fight to resurrect government-mandated narration "quotas" for broadcast and cable networks. A federal appeals court in Washington court struck down such quotas two years ago.
If passed, legislation sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, the senior Democrat on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, and Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, would obligate programmers to provide more narration and to pay for it themselves if federal funding disappears. Given the crowded legislative calendar, both lawmakers are seeking to attach their narration mandate to bills likely to pass this year.
The notion of a blind person's sitting down to enjoy a TV show might seem odd, but most blind and sight-impaired people lose their vision well into adulthood, after their habits of entertainment and getting news have been ingrained. Most, then, can envision the action with a little added description.
Narration, which is received over a special TV frequency, is squeezed into programming between the actual dialogue. The service was developed by Pfanstiehl's group and WGBH, Boston's public-TV station, and first aired in 1987 on the PBS American Playhouse. In 2000, the FCC required the four biggest broadcast networks and the five biggest cable nets to narrate four hours of prime time and kid shows weekly. Judges ruled two years later that the FCC had no authority to impose the mandate.
Advocates for the blind say narration has dropped significantly at five of the top six cable networks that were once big supporters: Lifetime, USA, and Turner's TBS, TNT, and Turner Classic Movies. Among the broadcast networks, ABC has halved its support and now narrates only its two-hour Saturday-night movie.
"We are getting a very tiny amount, but without a government mandate, what's available will never increase," laments Pfanstiehl.
CBS, Fox, NBC, and Nickelodeon each still provide close to four hours of new weekly narration. Shows they narrate include Law & Order, Bernie Mac, CSI, JAG, and Blue's Clues.
Although TV executives are not speaking out against the legislation yet, the push by Markey and McCain is certain to spark a fight. Broadcasters oppose the mandate because of the potential cost to stations. The National Association of Broadcasters has maintained that the cost of adding narration to shows, about $2,000 an hour, and equipping affiliates, about $160,000 per station, is prohibitively expensive.
Turner Networks, for example, is no longer adding narration and is relying solely on syndicated programs that have already been narrated and its library of more than 200 narrated movies. Aside from movies, which run mainly on Turner Classic Movies, Turner's TNT airs narrated Law & Order
reruns. Says spokeswoman Mindy Schedule, "The elimination of federal funds is one factor impacting our decision."
The debate over narration led to the creation of an odd coalition of two of the most powerful TV lobbying groups in Washington—the NAB and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association—and a tiny advocacy group for the blind, which banded together to defeat the narration quotas.
The court battle pitted the American Council of the Blind (ACB), a group representing the estimated 13 million sight-impaired people who lost vision later in life, against the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a much smaller group with 50,000 members.
NFB, which represents primarily people blind since birth, allied with the TV industry because it considers narration mandates a distraction from emergency-alert improvements its members want, such as voiced reports of emergency and weather instead of on-screen crawls. People who lost their sight later in life say they enjoy video description the most because narration of scenes, colors, and on-screen action have more meaning to them; their former ability to see gives them a better frame of reference.
The policy disagreement broke down into name-calling when NFB joined the TV industry's legal challenge to the narration mandate. ACB's president called its rival a "a traitor to our community." NFB retorted by calling ACB "vituperative."
As narration bills make their way through Congress, advocates argue that there's nothing frivolous about allowing blind people to enjoy America's dominant medium. Such restrictions prevent the blind from participating fully in society, says Larry Goldberg, director of media access for WBGH. "Blind people enjoy prime time shows just like everyone else."