What You Need to Know About FCC Audio Description Requirements

October 23, 2017 BY ELISA LEWIS
Updated: June 3, 2019

At the FCC, there’s always something interesting in the works. Will Schell, attorney advisor at the Disability Rights Office of the FCC, joined us for a webinar to provide a comprehensive overview of audio description requirements under FCC rule.

FCC Rules for Accessibility

The FCC has various rules regarding accessibility requirements for television and other communication services that play video programming. There are rules for providing emergency information, rules that require captioning on TV and internet, and rules for internet browsers on mobile phones.

evacuation-signEmergency Information

It is crucial to ensure that emergency information is accessible to all individuals. One of the FCC’s regulations requires that video programming distributors and providers make critical details of emergency information accessible to people who are blind and low vision. Examples of emergency information include information during natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, heavy snows, or widespread fires. In these cases, critical details would include information regarding the area affected, evacuation orders and routes, shelters, and instructions on how to secure personal property.

The application of this rule means that for a blind individual watching TV, an audio alert would let the individual know that emergency information is available. An alert could be the sound of three beeps, or other similar beeping pattern. Once the user hears the beeps, they would know to switch to the secondary audio program (SAP) where the critical details would be read out loud.

This rule also requires cable and satellite companies to make sure the emergency information is available through any application or device where a customer can access TV programming. With so many people watching TV on their smartphones and tablets, this is a very important aspect of this rule.

user-interfaceAccessible User Interface

Another rule from the FCC requires set-top boxes and devices that play video programming to have accessible user interfaces. This should allow a blind or low vision user the same ability as a seeing individual to utilize all of the functions on the device. For instance, all buttons including menus, channel selection, stop and start should be accessible.

In addition to set-top boxes, the rule for an accessible user interface applies to any device that can play video programming – smart TVs, tablets, TVs, Amazon Fire sticks – even a smart refrigerator! The accessibility rules also apply to any pre-installed apps or video players that come with these devices.

Relatively new, this rule applies to devices that have been manufactured beginning on December 20, 2016. Many of these products are really beginning to hit the market now! Although you may not have guessed this, blind people actually watch just as much video programming as sighted people do – which is over five hours a day. Like sighted people, blind people are spending large sums of money on video devices and services. Video programming is tightly intertwined with our culture and society, and therefore must be accessible to all.

Audio Description Requirements

Several months ago, the FCC expanded the amount of audio description that is required. The new rule calls for local TV station affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, which are located in the top 60 TV markets, and the top five non-broadcast networks to provide audio description. It should be noted that, although not required, there are a number of other stations that provide audio description voluntarily.

This new rule increased the required amount by 75%, increasing the requirement from 50 to 87.5 hours per calendar quarter for broadcast and cable networks. Per week, this is an increase from about 4 hours to about 7 hours of described video. These updates will take effect on July 1, 2018.

Issues With the New Rule/Room for Improvement

The increase in requirements for audio description is a big step in the right direction for accessibility. However, there is still work to be done. Specifically, there are several issues with the new rule where improvements can and should be made.


  • Lack Of “No Backsliding Rule”Additionally, although there were talks of a “no backsliding rule” in the proposal of this rule, there was no action on this. This rule would have prevented companies who were providing description from falling off of the list of top broadcasters, and therefore decreasing the amount of description required of them.
  • Lack of Dedicated Customer Service ContactThere was talk of requiring covered distributors to provide a dedicated customer service contact to field questions about audio description, however that was not included in the final rule.
  • Lack of Quality Standards for DescriptionWhile the increase in hours ensures that more content will be described, there is still a lack of proper standards or guidelines for creating audio description. This raises concerns for several reasons. First, there is no regulation of things like simplicity for those with cognitive disabilities. There are also no requirements or regulations for publishing the schedules of when described content can be found, making it difficult for individuals to know when the accessible content will be shown and how to access it.

National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP)

It is important to know that the FCC does more than simply create a lot of rules! In fact, the FCC administers the NDBEDP, a $10 million a year program that distributes telecommunication equipment to people who are low-income and deaf-blind. The program is also called iCanConnect, as it helps people connect to friends, family, and the world. The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program just recently became a permanent program, after being a pilot program for the last several years.


To learn more, check out the full webinar below!


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