FCC Requires Audio Alerts on Mobile Devices for TV Emergency Information

By Stephen J. Matzura and Marty Stern

The FCC has adopted new rules governing accessibility of emergency information in TV programming for blind or visually impaired individuals.  The rules require emergency information on TV to be available in audio format on mobile devices when subscription television providers permit consumers to access televised programming using mobile apps.

Under the FCC’s current rules adopted in a 2013 Report and Order pursuant to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, emergency information that interrupts regular TV programming must be accompanied by an aural tone and be available on a secondary audio stream.  The new rules require these secondary audio streams to be available “on tablets, smartphones, laptops, and similar devices when subscription television providers, such as cable and satellite operators, permit consumers to access programming over their networks using an app on these devices.”  According to the FCC, this will allow blind or visually impaired individuals who hear the aural tones on TV to switch to a secondary audio stream on such devices.

The new rules also require TV equipment that receives or plays back programming (e.g., set-top boxes) to have an activation mechanism that allows blind or visually impaired users to easily switch to a secondary audio stream to hear the emergency information.  In partial dissents, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly disagree that the FCC has authority under the CVAA to require mechanisms on set top boxes and similar devices to activate the secondary audio stream.

The FCC also adopted a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit comments on a number of issues, including coordination of multiple on-screen announcements, whether school-related information should be made available on the audio streams, and potential requirements for multichannel video programming distributors.

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