Markey Questions Captioning Exemptions

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A troubled Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass) has asked FCC Chairman Kevin Martin for information and guidance on two recent decisions to exempt shows from closed- captioning requirements.

The FCC appeared in the decisions to have turned down two requests for exemption into a policy that the deaf community is concerned may exempt many more faith-based broadcasters and other noncommercial broadcasters from requirements to make their programming accessible to the hearing impaired.

As of January 1, 2006, 100% of nonexempt, new English-language video programming had to be provided with captions, with exemptions for captioning that provides undue burdens for a number of reasons.

In granting exemptions from captioning for two religious shows whose producers--Anglers for Christ Ministries and New Beginning Ministries--argued captioning would make the shows too expensive to produce, the FCC sent a message to producers of similar programming.

"[I]n the future," said the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau in granting the exemptions, "when considering an exemption petition filed by a non-profit organization that does not receive compensation from video programming distributors from the airing of its programming, and that, in the absence of an exemption, may terminate or substantially curtail its programming or substantially curtail its programming or curtail other activities important to its mission, we will be inclined favorably to grant such a petition."

Markey, a longtime advocate for captioning, said he is concerned that the order "appears to open the door to many more exemptions." He has asked Martin for "any thoughts," as well as any plans for remedial action to to the language he says makes the test for qualifying for an exemption "that any noncommercial educational licensee could qualify by stipulating that any curtailment of 'other activities' warrants an exemption."

Markey also complains that some people seeking temporary waivers have been given permanent ones instead.

An FCC source says that decisions are not meant to expand the exemption, but instead to send the signal that if nonprofits are having to choose between captioning and not having the money to produce the show, it will consider that a sufficient hardship.

Still, one veteran noncommercial broadcast captioning executive who asked not to be identified saw the decision as the FCC going "overboard" to accommodate the requests.  "I read it as something that could very readily apply to smaller-market public TV stations," he says. "Look at all the effort going into indecency," he says, "whereas deaf people would love to hear a profane word once in a while. They can always turn it off."

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