This week, Congress passed the "Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010" (the Act). The Act, which the President is expected to sign into law shortly, provides the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with renewed authority to impose video description requirements on broadcast television stations and certain cable networks. It also requires the FCC to establish closed captioning obligations for some video programming provided over the Internet and to update its emergency information rules. A detailed summary of the new obligations broadcasters and other video programmers will face under the legislation, along with a projected timeline for the FCC actions and proceedings required under the Act, can be found here.

Video Description: The Act requires the FCC within one year (or by approximately October 2011) to establish rules obligating (1) all television stations that are both located in a top 25 DMA and affiliated with a big 4 broadcast network; and (2) the top five cable networks nationwide to provide a minimum of 50 hours per calendar quarter of programming with video descriptions. The rules will be phased-in based on a schedule to be set by the FCC, and descriptions must be provided during either prime-time or (for broadcasters) children's programming. The quarterly requirement may be increased to as much as 87.5 hours after several years.

In addition, broadcast stations affiliated with a big 4 network in DMAs 26-60 will be required to provide at least 50 hours per quarter of video descriptions based on a phased-in schedule to be established by the FCC. For these stations, video description requirements (1) must be fully in place by October 2016 but (2) cannot be imposed until after the requirements applicable to stations in top 25 markets have been fully implemented and the FCC has filed a report with Congress (due two years later). Accordingly, it is anticipated that these requirements will be phased in between approximately 2015 and 2016. The Act further provides the FCC with the authority to expand the number of markets in which video descriptions will be required in later years.

Broadcasters and cable networks will be able to seek waivers from these requirements based on a showing that they would be "economically burdensome."

Closed Captioning: Under the Act, certain video content distributed via the Internet or other IP-based distribution systems, for the first time, will have to be closed captioned. Specifically, by approximately April 2012, the FCC must complete a rulemaking that requires all video programming that is captioned on television also to be captioned if it is distributed using Internet protocol. The FCC's rulemaking will establish, among other things, (1) a schedule for compliance with Internet closed captioning obligations; (2) a process by which broadcasters, cable operators, or other MVPDs must alert video distributors that utilize IP-based platforms that a program must have captions; (3) which entity (i.e., "video programming distributors" or "video programming providers") will be responsible for delivering closed captions to consumers; (4) a process for parties to seek waivers if it can be shown that the requirements would be economically burdensome; and (5) possible exemptions for "live programming" or other types of services, equipment, or programming.

Emergency Information: By approximately April 2013, the FCC must complete a proceeding to update its rules on emergency information that will (1) identify methods to make emergency information more accessible to persons who suffer from visual impairment; and (2) require broadcasters and other video programmers/distributors to implement those methods.