Religious Programmers Grab Closed-Caption Waivers

The FCC has increased the number of closed-captioning waivers it gives to TV programmers. Religious programmers have received a disproportionate number of the waivers.

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The Federal Communications Commission has allowed hundreds of television broadcasters to avoid their legal obligation to provide closed captions for their programs. Activists for the deaf are outraged. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: Suppose you lost your hearing and you wanted to watch TV. If you bought your set within the past 13 years, you just hit the menu button and turn on closed captioning.

(Soundbite of NBC broadcast)

ANNOUNCER: This is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

ULABY: With closed captioning, you'd see those words at the bottom of the screen. Television sets made since 1993 contain a chip that makes it possible. Most shows these days are closed captioned, but it costs money. There are various ways to close caption shows, but even the cheapest can add hundreds, even thousands of dollars to many broadcasters' budgets.

Those with annual revenues of less than $3 million are exempt. Other small broadcasters can get waivers if they prove the expense is an undue burden. Closed captioning requirements were introduced as part of the sweeping Telecommunications Act of 1996. But implementation was gradual.

This is the first year that many smaller broadcasters have had to comply. They've petitioned for and received waivers in numbers that have shocked the deaf community.

Ms. ROSALINE CRAWFORD (Attorney, National Association of the Deaf): Two hundred and ninety-seven permanent waivers.

ULABY: Rosaline Crawford is an attorney for the National Association of the Deaf. Never before, she says, has the FCC granted permanent waivers for closed captioning.

Ms. CRAWFORD: Two hundred-and-thirty-eight of which were never posted for public notice and comment.

ULABY: Crawford says she's pained by this lack of transparency, especially from a commission usually sensitive to deaf issues.

Ms. CRAWFORD: This action taken by the FCC represents to us a very slippery slope.

ULABY: Made steeper, says Crawford, because the usual process for granting petitions seems to have been made easier for broadcasters.

Ms. CRAWFORD: Some of them were asking for only a temporary waiver. And the temporary nature of the request was totally ignored.

ULABY: And they got permanent waivers.

Ms. CRAWFORD: Yes.

ULABY: Even though they asked for temporary.

Ms. CRAWFORD: Yes.

ULABY: Crawford says this was all made possible by an FCC order last month that created a loophole for nonprofits. So far it's been used almost exclusively for the benefit of faith-based groups.

Craig Parshall is the senior vice president and general counsel for the group National Religious Broadcasters. He says most ministries would love to close caption their programs. But it's a hardship, he says, for small broadcasters like Anglers for Christ.

Mr. CRAIG PARSHALL (National Religious Broadcasters): Which is a sports-oriented, outdoors broadcasting program that is small enough where if they had to undergo the economic investment for closed captioning, they probably would have to go off the air.

ULABY: Parshall says other groups would have to chose between closed captioning and providing other community services. And he says he understands why the FCC granted so many permanent waivers.

Mr. PARSHALL: From an administrative standpoint, it certainly makes sense when you look at the number of applications that they've had to go through.

ULABY: And would have to go through again if the waivers were temporary. Former FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani says she's disappointed that the FCC's actions were made, quote, "under the radar." But she says she does not think the actions reveal a pattern of bias towards faith-based groups.

Ms. GLORIA TRISTANI (Former FCC Commissioner): There is a pattern that if they can make life easier and less regulatory, they do that. But that's not just with one group; that's with every - almost every ruling they encounter. I mean there's no secret that they would deregulate the world if they could.

ULABY: Eight advocacy groups have filed an application to review the waivers granted, and they hope the order will be rescinded.

One deaf activist said she was reminded of a Hollywood film that starred a deaf actress. She said for broadcasters who permanently opt out of closed captioning, the deaf are children of a lesser God.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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