Industry Rush to Caption by Jan. 1

Nov 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

All Sherri McKinney, video producer for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation communications department, wants for Christmas is to meet her Dec. 23 “drop-dead” deadline for shipping her leanly produced monthly show, “Down Home Virginia,” to the company that will provide the show’s closed captioning.

She didn’t know until three weeks ago that, effective Jan. 1, her show must be closed-captioned for hearing-impaired viewers per a Federal Communications Commission fiat.

“It came as a giant surprise,” said Ms. McKinney, who in addition to being one-half of the two-person production team of “Down Home” serves as the show’s co-host.

She joined a last-minute tizzy among stations, producers and distributors rushing to meet the deadline or risk penalties for infractions of rules many people in the industry find confusing or vague and onerous.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from people who want a solution quick,” said Heather York, account executive for VITAC, a leading for-profit company that provides prerecorded captioning and real-time captioning for such event programming as the Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Olympics and World Series.

Jan. 1 will mark the end of a six-year, four-stage rollout of captioning under a timetable the FCC set as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Starting in January everything shown between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. must be captioned so that hearing-impaired viewers can read what other viewers can hear. Spanish-language stations have until 2010 to meet the requirement for captioning.

Although network-owned station groups and other powerful station groups say they already meet or exceed the FCC requirements-or will by Jan. 1-they are not without questions that are about more than the potentially debilitating expense of real-time captioning.

Fines for violations of captioning rules are of particular concern to stations already coping with various market pressures. It’s not unusual for a station to spend $250,000 to $375,000 per year on captioning, which local executives consider a value-added cost that cannot increase a station’s revenues.

Mike McKinnon Jr., the president and general manager of independent San Diego station KUSI-TV, is one of a chorus of station executives who say they wish the FCC would extend the Jan. 1 deadline and rethink some its captioning requirements.

The FCC did grant the National Association of Broadcasters’ request last week for an extension of the period in which comment can be made on further closed-captioning rules the commission proposes to enact.

The FCC, with its proposed new rules, endeavors to set captioning quality standards. The rules would prohibit the use of Electronic Newsroom Technique encoding technology that translates news scripts and TelePrompTer material into captioning.

ENT is less expensive and less extensive than real-time captioning. It’s also less accurate, say advocates for the hearing-impaired. ENT cannot caption the unscripted things said during news programming, press conferences or other live events.

KUSI, which produces 7%BD; hours of local news programming on the average day, has been using ENT to caption its newscasts. In October 2003, when wildfires threatened the county, KUSI’s Mr. McKinnon said, “We did 47 hours of coverage before we went off the air for 10 minutes.”

He estimated that only 5 percent to 10 percent of what is said during any given newscast is not captioned.

But to comply with the FCC requirements, Mr. McKinnon said, he will be forced to contract for real-time captioning, at rates that run from $90 to $175 per hour with local captioning services. The costs can run as high as $300 or more from some providers.

“These people have us in their pocket,” Mr. McKinnon said.

In addition to facing added costs of captioning per the FCC’s requirements, Mr. McKinnon’s station is facing a fine for allegations that it violated a captioning mandate.

The FCC has proposed to fine KUSI $25,000 for what it perceived as 22 infractions of its rule requiring that any information presented aurally during emergency situations also be presented visually in a timely fashion.

KUSI is not alone. The FCC has also proposed to fine two other San Diego stations, KFMB-TV, the CBS affiliate, and KGTV-TV, the McGraw-Hill-owned ABC affiliate, $22,000, for similar infractions.

Mr. McKinnon, who said only one complaint came to his attention regarding KUSI’s captioning situation during the wildfires lag, said he has not yet paid the $25,000 fine but has let his sentiments be known to FCC staff and the NAB. Mr. McKinnon’s father is a member of the NAB board.

Mr. McKinnon told TelevisionWeek that KUSI is “profitable,” but the McKinnon family operation, which launched KUSI 23 years ago, owns only two other stations, ABC affiliates in the small markets of Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Texas.

He has not filed for an exemption from the FCC captioning requirements. The FCC has received many such requests, many of them from religious programmers, which are staples of local Sunday morning lineups throughout the country.

Most groups contacted by TVWeek were reluctant to comment publicly about the FCC rules. However, an executive with a station group that captions about 900 hours of live programming per quarter and has been preparing for the Jan. 1 deadline for more than a year, described his group as already in compliance, though he echoed what others have said: “There still is not full clarity on the rules.

“If there is a glitch and there is no captioning for a few minutes, is the station subject to a penalty, and what would the penalty be?” he said. “Our attorneys are actively trying to get the answers.”

In the meantime, to meet the workload demand, many captioning companies will continue to scramble to hire qualified captioners-think court reporters who can transcribe 200 or more words per minute. The captioners at this point are needed mostly for real-time captioning of news and other live programming, since captioning on prime-time network and syndicated programming became routine several years ago.

“We’re getting hit pretty hard with growth,” said Tad Polumbus, president and CEO of Caption Colorado, the largest supplier of real-time captioning in the country.

Mr. Polumbus said his company captions 500 to 600 shows per day on more than 100 stations and news networks throughout the country.

Caption Colorado currently employs some 120 captioners, and Mr. Polombus expects he’ll need 25 to 40 more to handle the last-minute rush of business-most of which occurs in the same peak hours in each time zone.

Neither the Telecommunications Act nor the FCC regulation addressed issues of funds for training the captioners that would be required to meet the increased need.

A bill to help pay for training of captioners has passed the Senate and another awaits a vote in the House.

“We should have addressed this years ago,” Ms. York said.

“What we are seeing right now is that providing captions still is an afterthought,” said Todd Houston, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Laborious Process

Whether a show is live or pre-taped, the captioning process can be laborious. Once Ms. McKinney’s “Down Home Virginia” is captioned, for example, it must make its way to more than 40 commercial and public stations in Virginia and to RFD TV, the young TV network focused on rural issues and lifestyles that is carried by DirecTV and DISH Network.

After a whirlwind round of research and comparison shopping, Ms. McKinney contracted with VITAC to caption “Down Home Virginia,” a magazine produced by the Virginia Farm Bureau as a comfortable mix of kitchen and garden segments that would appeal to a broad audience and farm-focused segments.

In a telephone interview from her Richmond, Va., office, Ms. McKinney said it costs $1,400 a month to duplicate her show, which she has to ship out at
three different lengths for the various outlets.

The captioning by VITAC will cost less. “Thank God,” she said, since it is an expense for which she had not budgeted and which will come out of her “just-in-case fund.”

“This is one of those hurdles folks like us have to get over,” she said.