New FCC rules on closed captioning fall short, deaf say

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Many deaf activists say they are disappointed with the shortcomings of a new law that requires television producers to add captions to popular shows like “CSI” or “The Office” when they are viewed online.

The Federal Communications Commission recently issued a set of rules to implement the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, known as CVAA. Deaf advocates are calling the new rules, which started to take effect Sept. 30, a step forward, but they also complain of too many loopholes in the law and the FCC’s rules.

Critics point out that the new law only applies to full-length shows that air on regular television, so shows that air only online on websites such as Netflix and Hulu do not have to comply.

“That’s a big issue, because there are more and more Internet-only shows and content,” said Christian Vogler, director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University, a prominent school for deaf students in Washington.

To make matters worse, news organizations will largely be exempt because the law doesn’t apply to short clips.

“The Internet was a big barrier,” Mr. Vogler said in an email interview. “This law does much to break it down, but it’s not 100 percent successful at doing so.”

In Congress, Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, and Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, pushed the legislation to require more captioning, and President Obama signed it into law in October 2010.

The FCC began implementing the rule last week. Now, unedited, full-length programs shown on TV with captions must also be captioned when they are made available online. More updates will be phased in at later dates.

Advocates for the deaf acknowledge the CVAA law is progress for them — a deaf viewer who missed his favorite television shows can catch up online, while previously a show that aired with captioning available didn’t have to be posted online that way.

“More and more of us are not watching so much TV, and more of us are relying on our programs on the Internet instead,” Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said in a phone call through a translator. “What’s wonderful, if you miss a program on TV, you can go online and catch a program on TV that’s already been recorded.”

But the problem is there are too many loopholes in the new law, deaf advocates say, so many shows will not have to comply.

Andrew Phillips, policy lawyer at the National Association of the Deaf, said in an emailed statement that his organization is “appreciative of the efforts” to add captions to online shows, but added that the loopholes are “problematic.”

“Unfortunately, the CVAA does not cover all video-programming content on the Internet,” he said.

News organizations are also exempt from adding captions to video clips, although they would have to comply on content that they stream live or other full-length newscasts.

So when, for example, CNN puts on its website a segment about the tensions in the Middle East or ESPN posts the highlights of last night’s game, the stations won’t be required to include captions.

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