FCC rescinds church broadcast exemptions

Baptist Press

11/3/2011 5:52:20 PM - Baptist Press

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Federal Communications Commission has reversed a policy that allowed church broadcasts to receive exemptions from a closed captioning requirement, but a representative of the National Religious Broadcasters said the development is not necessarily bad news.

"We don't believe that the action of the FCC shows hostility against Christian broadcasters. We think it's a recognition by the Federal Communications Commission that the process that was being used internally to review these applications for waiver was simply not the right process," Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel for NRB, told Baptist Press.

"So it's not a matter of Christian broadcasters having either done the wrong thing or being punished by the FCC. It's a matter of correcting a process that went awry, and they're trying to set the clock back now."

Since 1996, churches were granted exemptions from the requirement to provide closed captioning of their programming under a decision known as the Anglers Order stemming from the Anglers for Christ Ministries program that had argued for exemption.

The exemptions were handled by the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, but the full commission overturned the Anglers Order Oct. 20 following objections by representatives of the hearing-impaired.

Under the closed captioning policy, programmers obtained exemptions if they could prove that the cost of the captioning would cause undue economic hardship. The hearing-impaired groups said the policy essentially created a blanket exemption for nonprofit organizations.

The FCC has been mailing letters to programmers informing them of the policy reversal and giving them 90 days to comply with the closed captioning requirement or reapply for exemption.

Parshall said the development holds both good and bad news for religious broadcasters.

"The bad news is there are about 400 programmers/stations that have applied for exemptions and were granted them under a process that the FCC now has determined wasn't proper, not because of anything that the broadcasters did wrong but because the media bureau within the FCC that oversees the application for exemptions wasn't following the right procedures," Parshall said.

"So they're going back to square one. That's the bad news, I guess. The good news is that they have 90 days to file again for exemptions if they simply can't afford to do it. Some small broadcasters can't afford the price of closed captioning, and there's a provision for them to apply and show economic hardship."

Broadcasters will have to show that if they have to pay the expense of closed captioning, which can cost $200 or $300 per hour, their programming day would be disrupted, Parshall said. In other words, they may have to drop some programs or change programming as a result.

Most broadcasters obtain material from other sources, such as a church that provides a pastor's sermon.

"The Christian station has to go back to the church or any other source of their programming and say, 'Can you please close caption your content from now on?'" Parshall said.

"If they say, 'No … we can't afford it either,' then they need to get a letter from that source and attach it to their request to show that they've done due diligence to try to get their programming people to be able to provide closed captioning as well," he advised.

Parshall urged broadcasters to take action sooner rather than later and to ensure that they submit paperwork to the FCC well in advance of the 90 days deadline.

"If for some reason the 90 days isn't sufficient for them to get all of their information together, they should get as much information as they can together in their application about their finances and the effect on programming and how much it would cost and how they can't afford it and the due diligence that they've done to go to their programmers," Parshall said. "Then say, 'I need a little bit more time to get additional information.'"

Not all religious broadcasters will want to apply for an exemption, Parshall said, given that the new process was prompted by a group of people who want access to the content being broadcast.

"This is an interesting dilemma because we believe that the life-changing and soul-saving message of Jesus Christ needs to get out to every segment of the community, including the hearing-impaired community. Closed captioning is a great way to do that," Parshall said.

"The balance is, though, we're in tough economic times, everybody's pulling in the belt, and Christian broadcasters are already stretched to the limit," he said. "So we're asking the FCC to have a reasonable approach to this and recognize that reality as they're looking to review these new petitions."

Some closed captioning companies deal specifically with religious broadcasters, Parshall said, and he would advise any broadcasters who can afford closed captioning to take advantage of it in order to disseminate the message.

Broadcasters should be careful, he said, to ensure that whatever closed captioning service is used translates the material accurately. Depending on the technique, the translation doesn't always perfectly replicate the audio.

"So, obviously, it's not just a price issue. Also, you want to make sure that the content is accurately translated to the hearing-impaired community, particularly when you're talking about something as important as the message of the Gospel of Christ," Parshall said.

The exemption policy reversal only affects communicators who currently are regulated by the FCC, which would mean television broadcasters and stations that have licenses.

"Cable, satellite and, of course, over-the-air broadcasters for television -- if they're currently regulated and licensed by the FCC, then they need to comply or apply for an exemption, a waiver," Parshall said.

Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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