True to its word, the FCC continues to get tough on TV operators over their provision of emergency information to the hearing impaired.
The commission Tuesday proposed fining two Florida TV stations, WBBH and WZVN of Fort Myers, Fla., $24,000 apiece for three separate violations of its requirement that TV stations and cable operators "provide people with hearing disabilities the same access to emergency information as those with unimpaired hearing."
The violations came during coverage of Hurricane Charley in August 2004. The stations, which dropped regular programming in favor of simulcasting 24-hour hurricane coverage (per a time-brokerage agreement) failed to provide visual warnings to accompany the news that a causeway was closed, that an evacuation of one area had been issued, and that residents in another area were advised not evacuate but stay where they were.
The stations did not dispute the omissions, but said they didn't feel the information was critical and that that call fell within the discretion the FCC gave stations to decide when such information was important enough to warrant the on-screen visuals, which can include captions, crawls and graphics.
The commission concluded instead that the information was obviously critical, that stations have discretion over only non-critical disaster information, and that to interpret the "good faith discretion" to include the cited ommissions would be to "swallow the rule and render it wholly ineffective."
"We're considering all our options," said Steve Ponitus, GM of both stations, who said it was some kind of "divine irony" that the ruling would be released on the one-year anniversary of the storm. "I am so proud of my staff and the job they did a year ago this week of protecting the lives and property of the people of South Florida, including the hearing impaired," he said.. "They personified everything a responsible broadcaster should be and I stand by what we did."
Jon Blake, who represents the stations for D.C. firm Covington & Burling, points out that the fine proposal came after the FCC reviewed the stations' required defense of all eight days of station coverage. He will now focus on responding to the "three slices the FCC focuse on, which we think is a little myopic."He also pointed out that the commission's policy provided a perverse disincentive for extended coverage, since the more you do the greater your vulnerability, a point that has been made by other broadcasters, including the Radio-Television News Directors Association.FCC rules approved in 2000 require TV stations and cable operators to provide visual versions of emergency information voiced during a broadcast.
Tuesday's proposed fines were the third instance of the FCC proposing penalties against stations that failed to make emergency warnings available in visual form.
The first fines were proposed in February against San Diego TV stations that failed in a few instances to provide visual warnings during southern California's 2003 wildfire outbreak.
Those stations expressed frustration over the fines, in one case including a pledge not to pay. Opining that the few instances cited came among days' worth of coverage from staffers that, in some cases, faced the destruction of their own homes and property as they also tried to protect their viewers.
The FCC said at the time that more proposed fines were on the way, and was as good as its word.
In May, it proposed fining three Washington TV stations a total of $40,000 for tornado coverage that lacked sufficient visual warnings, or where those warnings were delayed.
Those stations, too, expressed frustration over a fine levied for a few moments amidst hours of wall-to-wall coverage filled with emergency info, including in some cases color-coded maps and other visuals.