The accessibility challenge: New cinema rules proposed for hearing and visually impaired

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The U.S. Department of Justice has proposed new regulations to require closed captioning and “audio description” in theatres. Public comments are being accepted until Dec. 1, 2014. The extended comment period is due to a request of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) for a 60-day extension to the comment period. This Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) follows an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued in 2010 and an NPRM issued in 2008.

Proposed Requirements
The NPRM proposes the following requirements:
1.    All digital auditoriums to have closed-captioning capability within six months of the effective date of the rule. This contrasts with the 2010 ANPRM proposal to have 50% of the screens offer closed captioning within five years.
2.    Theatres with digital auditoriums would be required to have closed-captioning receivers. The number of receivers proposed is about half the currently required number of hearing-impaired audio receivers. The number of receivers required is based on the total number of seats in a theatre complex, since they may be used in any auditorium. The proposed receiver requirements are shown below.
3.    As an alternative to providing closed captioning, theatres would be allowed to run open (onscreen) captions for all movies at all times.
4.    All digital auditoriums to have audio description (commonly called VI-N or visually impaired narrative) within six months of the effective date of the rule. This contrasts with the 2010 ANPRM proposal to have 50% of the screens offer audio description within five years. Theatres would be required to have at least one audio description receiver per screen with a minimum of two receivers per theatre. Theatres may use their existing two-channel assistive-listening receivers to satisfy this requirement without getting additional receivers (making hearing-impaired audio available on one channel and visually impaired audio available on the other channel).
5.    The NPRM asks whether a closed-captioning requirement should be imposed on non-digital (film or “analog”) auditoriums at this time. One possibility they suggest is to require closed captioning in non-digital auditoriums within four years of the effective date of the rule. The other possibility is to not put any requirement on non-digital auditoriums at this time. These proposed relaxed requirements for non-digital auditoriums are due to the likelihood that many of these auditoriums will be converted to digital during this period and due to the substantially higher cost of providing closed captioning in non-digital auditoriums.
6.    Drive-in theatres would be exempt from the proposed rules. The NPRM exempts drive-in theatres by excluding them from the definition of a movie theatre. The proposed exemption is based on a lack of suitable technology for closed captioning and audio description for drive-in theatres.

Comments on Proposed Rules
At this writing, over 100 comments have been submitted. Most are from hearing-impaired individuals. They generally support the rule but prefer open (onscreen) captions to closed captions. Many of these comments point out that the public is used to onscreen captions on television in public places (airports, restaurants, etc.), so they should not object to onscreen captions in theatres. A few comments disfavor onscreen captions as diminishing the movie experience. Some commenters (both theatre owners and non-owners) oppose the proposed regulations as imposing excessive costs on private businesses. One commenter proposes a requirement that theatres transmit a standard closed-captioning and audio-description signal. Patrons needing receivers would bring their own. Finally, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) requested (and was granted) a 60-day extension in the comment period. They point out that the NPRM is substantially different from the 2010 ANPRM and that it will take more than 60 days to answer the 21 questions posed in the NPRM. NATO states that the proposed rules will require the installation of closed-captioning and audio-description equipment in over 30,000 auditoriums at a cost of over $200,000,000.

Additional Resources
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, filed comments, and an online form for submitting comments is located at www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOJ-CRT-2014-0004-0001. A summary of filed comments, maintained by the author, is located at http://ming.hallikainen.org/DojNprm.