Hey there blog reader, my name is Daniell Krawczyk and I have been working in the world of community television since I was young and impressionable. I started at the Community Media Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2001, where we took laptops and cameras to schools, and then moved to LTC in Lowell, Massachusetts where we helped build an early digital peer-to-peer distribution system for PEG (Public, Education, and Government) Cable Channels. After that I spent a dozen years at different sales jobs helping PEG stations transition to digital playback and transmission workflows. I left all that for my latest endeavor, starting my own company, Municipal Captioning Inc.
Municipal Captioning works with cities and local community television organizations to simplify the complex world of closed captioning for community television operations. Often these organizations don’t have the time to spare learning all of the ins and outs of captioning through trial and error, and need some help comparing all of the available options in the market, from professional human solutions to emerging AI technology. MC has a company ethos of “Be Kind.” We aim to help civic organizations Be Kind to themselves by addressing the accessibility obligation on their own timeline, before a shorter timeline and rushed solution is forced on them due to an external threat. We also aim to help civic organizations Be Kind to those who benefit from captions, including the deaf community, the hard of hearing, those learning English or learning to read, and those who read captions to follow along at work or other places where reading is better than listening.
Sometimes, when talking to friends at PEG stations I hear a variation on the following:
‘HOLY SMOKES, we haven’t captioned our channels before, and providing closed captioning seems OVERWHELMING. Is it really my responsibility?’
Yes, while I have yet to meet a PEG station that didn’t see the value of providing captioning, many become anxious when they start to really consider that it’s their responsibility to do so. While it’s easier to ignore the tough questions, I’m going to dive right into the 2 big ones that channel operators need to confront right away.
- Do you NEED to add captions to your content?
- If yes, HOW do you want to provide them?
Spoiler Alert: part of this answer to question 1 depends on whether the organization in question is a purely “public-access” tv station that broadcasts programs produced by others, or an entity creating civic content such as a city/county channel, or a nonprofit that covers meetings and creates content.
By the way, if you are looking for legal advice in this blog post, let me disclaim quickly “I AM NOT A LAWYER” and advise that all organizations and cities DO speak to their cable attorney or relevant legal council for legal advice. That being said, here’s this non-lawyers quick response to the “do we have to?” question for PEG operators:
FCC captioning requirements have always mostly exempted community television by including exemptions based on revenue levels. See item (12) here.
Because of this exemption from the FCC, some local station operators have assumed that they are free from all legal obligation. However the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that state and local government entities, as well as those acting on their behalf, provide effective communication to all citizens.
Unlike the FCC, which exempts most PEG channels through revenue-limits, the ADA outlines a general expectation that all entities provide “effective communication”. Whereas the FCC details the specific quality and location of the captioning expected by professional stations, and then exempts most small or local organizations from these demands, the ADA requirements apply to all organizations but allow for some judgement by the local organizations on which ways they will provide “effective communications”. For guidance, the ADA Effective Communications document outlines the concept of “undue burden”, defining it as a significant difficulty or expense, taking into an account all resources. If one solution is determined to be an “undue burden” by the local government, they can implement another solution that is less difficult or expensive. Decisions by local governments regarding “undue burdens” must be signed off on by a Department head or higher level official and must include a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion. Businesses and nonprofits are given similar guidelines for determining whether a solution is an “undue burden” based on overall resources.
This is where I take off my “NOT A LAWYER” hat and we go back to the BIG QUESTION:
“Is it my concern????”
And based on my nickel-summary of the ADA above, this is answered best by asking yourself 2 more questions.
- Is my Community Television organization a part of the local government or school?
- Is my organization operating on the local government or school’s behalf by covering the council or school board meetings?
If the answer to either question is Yes, then you should definitely consider the ADA’s requirement for effective communication to be your concern. However, I think you can be a little less concerned however if your community television operation is not part of the local government or school, nor acting on their behalf. Basically, if you do not cover meetings or produce content for the city or schools, and your station only broadcasts content created by others, then you have less expectation to add captions than organizations which do cover meetings and create civic content.
However, even pure public access organizations who produce no original content are still required to pass-through any captioning that producers submit within their content. So, rule of thumb for public access appears to be that you have to pass-through but you have less obligations to create captions for the un-captioned content submitted by producers. Again, I am not a lawyer, but this free advice boils down to:
If you touch civic content such as meetings or other content created by local gov or schools, consider the ADA to be something to be concerned about in 2019.
If you have some content that is public access content and some content that is civic content, you may only have the responsibility of passing-through existing captions on the public access content that you rebroadcast (meaning you might not be required to caption every minute of video on your channel) but there is an expectation and likely a legal obligation for you to provide “effective communication” with the civic content.
What constitutes “effective communication” is open to discussion, but closed captioning is one of the most-often implemented solutions. Other popular solutions are ASL (American Sign Language) translators and “open captions” where the words are burned into the video and not something the home viewer can toggle on and off.
Thanks for joining me in this first blog post. For further consideration on this topic, watch the recorded webinar from Feb 5, 2019 where I discussed this and some of the content I'll cover in my next post with telecommunications lawyer, Vince Rotty of Bradley Law, MN. Find that recording here. In the meantime, if you have questions about captioning and would like to talk to someone sooner, you can call me at 888-898-6864 or on my cell at 617-245-1744. Or you can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time to talk.
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