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April 30, 2004

Closed-captioning bill making its way in House

From: Record-Journal, CT - Apr 30, 2004

By Paul Hughes, Record-Journal staff

HARTFORD — Deaf activists and television broadcasters in Connecticut started out on the opposite sides of a debate over closed-captioning of live newscasts and emergency alerts.

The Connecticut Broadcasters Association had opposed legislation that proposed to set a date of Jan. 1, 2006, for requiring closed-captioning of all portions of TV newscasts and emergency broadcasts.

Activists in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community lined up behind the bill, and they had the backing of some sympathetic state legislators.

An agreement brokered in the last week resulted in the announcement Thursday that a compromise had been reached.

Television stations in the state pledged to work to broadcast emergency alerts in closed-captioning by Apri1 1, 2005, nine months earlier than Federal Communications Commission's regulations require.

Television broadcasters also committed to comply with FCC regulations mandating that stations in Connecticut shall provide closed-captioning for all TV programs effective Jan. 1, 2006. At this time, only scripted portions of news broadcasts are closed-captioned.

Some state lawmakers, including Reps. Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and James W. Abrams, D-Meriden, had proposed to put the Jan. 1, 2006, deadline in state law in case the FCC changed its regulations.

Legislators said the threat of a legislative mandate helped bring the television broadcasters to the negotiating table.

The disagreements of the past several months were not forgotten at a news conference Thursday morning, but the compromise seemed to eclipse them. The general consensus was that the voluntary agreement that the Connecticut Broadcasters Association and the Connecticut Council of Organizations Serving the Deaf negotiated was a landmark achievement.

"When we discussed about the agreement, we weren't thinking in terms of a victory. We were thinking about how we could work together," said Harvey J. Corson, executive director of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.

Representatives of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association held out the possibility that they could offer closed-captioning earlier than the voluntary deadlines set out in the agreement announced Thursday.

"We can't give you a time frame. The FCC set the date of Jan. 1, 2006. We're all trying do it much sooner," said Elden Hale, vice president and general manager of WFSB-TV Channel 3. "It is a very complicated process. There are a lot of new technologies to make this easier and more accurate. Accuracy is also one of the issues, because it doesn't do any good to have closed-captioning if it is not accurate."

Hale predicted that all television stations in the state will beat the 2006 deadline for offering closed-captioning for all newscasts.

Corson said technological advancements and the threat of terrorism are primarily responsible for the compromise with television broadcasters.

He said the technology to offer closed-captioning of live feeds has been further refined in the last two to three years.

Corson said television broadcasters are more sensitive to the needs of the deaf community following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Without closed-captioning, the deaf and hard of hearing often cannot discern the information a live report or emergency alert is conveying.

Corson cited as examples the attacks of 9-11, the anthrax scare in Connecticut that followed, and, more recently, the highway bridge fire in Bridgeport.

"Really, there was no way to communicate that information," he said. "I think these factors created a climate of understanding on the part of the TV industry and a recognition of the urgency of the situation, and I think that helped promote the understanding and the agreement."

Abrams said he had been unaware of the problem until deaf activists showed him videotapes of TV newscasts.

"It had always been my assumption that all of the news broadcast were closed-captioned, and then when it got to the live feeds, and it got to the weather, there was nothing really running underneath them," he said. "That was really a moment for me, a real awakening saying this is really an important issue."

"Information was not getting out. People were not informed," Donovan said.

The FCC now mandates closed-captioning in the nation's largest media markets.

"Unfortunately, the FCC right now requires real-time captioning of all local news for their top 25 media markets, and, unfortunately, the Hartford-New Haven market is 27th," McCluskey said.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said the FCC regulations strike him as unfair and illogical.

"Safety and lives are as important to the markets that are smaller as to the markets that are larger, and there was some kind of economic imperative of the FCC to have this important rule to apply to the top 25 markets," he said. "There is no human explanation for not having it apply to all markets."

The agreement announced Thursday establishes a committee consisting of representatives for the five TV companies with stations licensed in the state and five representatives of the deaf and hard of hearing community to work on captioning. The panel will be chaired by a member of the General Assembly, and it will meet quarterly until the captioning objectives laid out in the agreement are met.

Lawmakers said they are also working on providing closed-captioning for a state-funded television network's live coverage of the General Assembly.

"It is wrong that we have been denying the deaf community access to this important medium for providing information on this state government, which they are taxpayers of. They have a right to know," McCluskey said.

The Connecticut Television Network, CT-N, a nonprofit service of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, Connecticut Public Television, Connecticut Community Colleges and New England Cable Television Association, is exploring its options.

"It is a huge undertaking. We have 2,000 hours of live coverage," Paul Giguere, president and CEO of Connecticut Public Affairs Network, managing partner of CT-N.

Copyright © 2004 The Record-Journal