WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is 10 years old, but some of its provisions are still being implemented. One that escaped the notice of many Catholic broadcasters is the requirement that most broadcast programming must be closed-captioned.
The requirement is placed on local television stations, which are at risk of Federal Communications Commission fines for not complying. But stations have told their local programming providers that the providers must pick up the tab for closed-captioning.
But in an era where the overwhelming majority of shows on local channels are network programs, syndicated fare, local news and infomercials, there are very few other programming providers. Of those few, one would be a Catholic diocese producing a Mass for shut-ins.
The closed-captioning requirement took effect Jan. 1. However, some local stations didn't notify diocesan program providers who was going to be on the hook for closed-captioning until just a few months ago.
Closed-captioning – which not only provides dialogue text but also describes background noise and sound effects – can be done for as little as $200 for each half-hour, according to Katherine Grincewich, a staff attorney with the U.S. bishops' Office of General Counsel. More sophisticated closed-captioning can cost up to $600 per half-hour. The National Association for the Deaf has urged higher-quality closed-captioning, and has given its seal of approval to some devices.
The cost for machines and computer programs can run into five digits, not counting the cost of personnel to operate them properly.
The Diocese of Springfield, Mass., has ordered a $10,000 device whereby a person speaks into a computer with voice-recognition software installed. The software then generates the closed-captioning on the screen.
The problem, according to diocesan communications director Mark Dupont, is that there is a "squeeze" on the market for the machine because of the Jan. 1 deadline. The diocese, he added, has asked for a temporary waiver from the FCC so that it can acquire the machine and train "captionists" to work it.
"We want to provide this service to the deaf," Dupont said, but his budget is stretched thin on account of an 18 percent budget cut imposed on all departments in the diocese. If the FCC turns down the request, the NBC affiliate in Springfield that airs both the live weekly diocesan Mass and a Saturday newsmagazine program about Catholic life, could legally pull the shows off the air until the diocese is able to comply.
The Diocese of Venice, Fla., has purchased a $5,000 caption generator which it hopes is compatible with its existing computers. To meet the Jan. 1 deadline, the diocese sent tapes of its first two Sunday Masses to a local captionist. He was so swamped with work as a result of the regulation, though, that the diocese has had to ship subsequent tapes to Miami for closed-captioning.
The Archdiocese of Miami also filed for a waiver. It airs a Sunday Mass on the Pax network affiliate in Miami, but it has to pay $80,000 a year for the privilege. Closed-captioning would cost the archdiocese another $15,000 a year in addition to $7,000 it already spends on mailing missal aids to viewers. The diocese also airs Masses in Spanish and Creole, languages that are not subject to the closed-captioning requirement.
Teresa Martinez, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said cost is a big factor in asking for the waiver. "We'll see what the FCC decides," she said. One exception to the regulation -- one the archdiocese is using in its wavier request -- is that the televised Sunday Mass is local and nonrepeatable, because the liturgy is meant only for that particular Sunday. The three-year liturgical cycle would make rerunning a Sunday Mass even less likely.
The FCC also allows for exemptions if an "undue burden" can be proved.
Martinez noted that "timing is a big issue" as well. The U.S. bishops' guidelines for televised Masses say if the Mass must be prerecorded that should be done as close to the broadcast date as possible. But Martinez said that the archdiocese's closed-captioning partner needs one week of lead time to do the job properly.
The Miami Archdiocese considers the televised Mass "an important outreach, especially to the homebound," Martinez said.
The costs of closed-captioning are ultimately going to be borne by dioceses since the Mass broadcasts don't carry commercials, while commercial television can get sponsorships for captioning. The National Association of Television Program Executives, in a news bulletin, called closed-captioning sponsorships "affordable national television advertising with perks."
Richard Storrs, who founded Creative Television Marketing, which specializes in short-form national TV ad sales, told the TV executives group, "Advertisers that potentially can't afford to buy 15- and 30-second spots on national television are finding this area an efficient way to brand their products and get their message out."
No word has come from the FCC on when it will issue a ruling on waiver requests; those who have filed for waivers do not have to comply with the caption requirement until their case is resolved. "I imagine," Martinez said, "that they (commissioners) have a lot of them to go through."
Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops