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Goldberg Testimony on Markey Bill – Part One

Goldberg Testimony on Markey Bill – Part One

Editor: The Markey Bill is more formally known as the “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2007”, and will require accessibility for people with disabilities to various media. Of particular interest to people with hearing loss is the requirement for captioning on video on the Internet. Here’s the testimony of Larry Goldberg, Director, Media Access, WGBH, Boston before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, House Committee on Energy and Commerce on May 1, 2008.

This is part one of two parts.


June 2008

Thank you Congressman Markey and other members of the Subcommittee for the opportunity to testify before your subcommittee today.

My name is Larry Goldberg and I am the Director of Media Access at WGBH, Boston’s public broadcaster. WGBH is not only the home of such prominent television programs as “Antiques Roadshow,” “Nova,” “Frontline,” “American Experience,” and many wonderful children’s programs such as “Arthur,” “Between the Lions,” “Fetch” and so many others, WGBH is also where captioning of television for deaf and hard-of-hearing people began. More than 35 years ago, Julia Child’s “The French Chef” was the first open-captioned TV program, followed by a decade of the ground-breaking “Captioned ABC Evening News” and other captioned entertainment, news and children’s programs on PBS.

In 1980, WGBH along with PBS engineers launched closed captioning, enabling all TV viewers to select captioning of a limited number of TV programs at the touch of a button. WGBH’s development of innovative technologies and creative production solutions preceded the launch of both open and closed captioning and lead the way to the pervasive captioning we have available today.

In 1990, a similar effort enabled the launch of WGBH’s “Descriptive Video Service,” the first widely available media access service tailored for the needs of people who are blind or visually impaired. Exploiting the newly launched stereo television audio system (known as MTS or Multichannel Television Sound), DVS provides viewers with carefully crafted descriptions of key visual elements, timed for insertion during the pauses in dialog. Initially only available on a handful of PBS programs, DVS eventually spread to dozens of public TV programs for children and adults alike and to programs on commercial broadcast and cable networks as well. From Turner Classic Movies to CBS’ “CSI” and Fox’s “The Simpson’s,” blind and visually impaired viewers have told us over and over again how much they appreciate having access to the electronic media their sighted friends and family take for granted.

In the late 1990s and into the early 21st century, WGBH worked with its constituents in the blind community to provide the FCC with the technical, financial and operational information it needed to institute a modest requirement for the carriage and delivery of video description. Based on its reading of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC’s mandate went into effect in April 2002. Until November of that year, commercial broadcast and cable networks provided four or more hours of described programming per week and ensured the proper delivery of that extra audio signal to their viewers, as required by the FCC action.

However, a challenge brought before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit successfully overturned the FCC’s video description requirement, arguing that Congress hadn’t clearly stated its intention to require description the way they had regarding closed captioning. The bill before this committee would clarify Congress’ intent to make television accessible to all Americans, including those who are blind or visually impaired. The bill would also assure that programs that have been produced with description reach their intended audiences, clearing the many barriers inadvertently created in the new digital broadcast, cable and satellite pathways to the home. We strongly support all aspects of the reinstatement of the FCC’s video description mandate.

In 1993, with initial funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, WGBH launched the research and development arm of its media access activities, now known as the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH (or “NCAM” for short). NCAM’s mandate has been to reach out to people with sensory disabilities all over the world to understand and ascertain their media and communications needs and then to take action to help meet these needs. From membership in numerous standards committees in all technological fields to advising Federal agencies and corporate partners, to developing tools and processes, NCAM endeavors to uncover practical and usable techniques to lowering barriers for social inclusion. Often with generous grants from Federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Departments of Education and Commerce, NCAM has acquired deep expertise and developed accessibility solutions for theatrical motion pictures, DVDs, in-flight entertainment systems, digital set-top boxes, mobile devices such as PDAs and cell phones, and online, web-based media among other platforms. An ongoing project with NPR focusing on accessible radio technologies1[1] has excited the interest of members of both the deaf and blind communities.

Today, due to the wider availability of high-speed, broadband Internet service and the recognition by content providers that consumers of media want more viewing options and personal control of their media choices, more and more people are watching their favorite TV shows on their computers. And just like in the early days of TV captioning, technologies and standards have had to be developed and innovative production processes created to enable the availability of captioning of web-based media.

Here’s part two