The FCC on Thursday approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to potentially expand the reach and availability of video-described programming, a move that could ultimately impact popular non-broadcast networks including AMC and Discovery.
Under the FCC's proposed new rules, the number of networks subject to the video-description rules would increase from four broadcast and five non-broadcast networks to five broadcast and ten non-broadcast networks. Those networks would be required to provide 87.5 hours of video-described programming (up from 50 hours) per calendar quarter. Video-described programming entails providing audio descriptions of TV programs for visually impaired or blind viewers.
The FCC would use the average national "live plus-7" Nielsen ratings during prime time from the prior full ratings year to determine which networks would be newly required to provide the mandated amount of video-described programming. If the Nielsen "live plus-3" ratings from 2015 are any indication, that would mean networks like AMC -- home of ratings monster The Walking Dead -- and Discovery would fall within the parameters of the program.
Neither AMC nor Discovery were immediately available for comment.
Non-broadcast networks currently subject to the rules are Disney Channel, History, TBS, TNT and USA.
The proposal points to 2014 numbers from the National Association of Broadcasters that estimates the cost of video describing runs between $2,500 and $4,100 per program hour. That means the expanded rules proposal would cost networks between $875,000 and $1.4 million per year.
The FCC also proposed a "no-backsliding rule," which means networks would remain subject to the requirements even if they fall out of the top five or top ten ranking.
That rule lead to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai dissenting in part, claiming the FCC is essentially reinventing math by mandating that ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC remain in the top five broadcasters even if a dip in ratings technically puts one of them outside the top five.
"In FCC-speak, the top five broadcast networks can mean more than five networks. This brings to mind the insistence of the Party in George Orwell's 1984 that 2 + 2 = 5," Pai said in a statement.
Pai also objected to the proposed increase in scope for the program, saying that the increase in required video described programming hours and the number of networks subject to the rules equals about a 192 percent increase in total video-described programming hours, far exceeding Congress's statement that any new rules not increase programming requirements by more than 75 percent.
The action on the video-description rules happened during a contentious day for the FCC, which appeared sharply divided after a bipartisan compromise on a budget for the newly revised Lifeline program was shot down by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, leading to heated dissenting statements from Pai and Commission Michael O'Rielly.
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