Closed captioning complaint process inches ahead

From our “Hey, Whatever Happened To . . . ?” file, here’s an update on the new (well, at least it was new a year ago) complaint process relative to the closed captioning rules for video programming. That process was first announced in November, 2008, but has still not yet gone into effect.

As we reported back in November, 2008 (and again in January, 2009), the new complaint process – set out in a Declaratory Ruling, Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in November, 2008 – requires that the recipient of an incorrectly addressed closing captioning complaint forward that complaint on to the correct party. For example, the complainant might have written to her cable company – since that’s who she normally writes her monthly subscription checks to – not realizing that the party really responsible for the complained-of captioning issue was a program producer or distributor unrelated to the cable company. Under the new rules, the cable company would be obligated to forward the complaint on to the right folks.

As it turns out, that raises a problem.

Complaints like that generally contain personally identifiable information, such as the complainant’s name and address. But Section 631(c)(1) of the Communications Act prohibits cable companies from disclosing any such personal information of a subscriber without prior written consent, and Section 338(i)(4) of the Act imposes the same prohibition on satellite carriers. As a result, in order to comply with the complaint-forwarding requirement, cable and satellite operators would be forced to violate the non-disclosure laws. Oops. (Exactly why this conundrum had not been perceived before the complaint-forwarding process was initially adopted is not clear. Nor is it clear why it’s taken the FCC a year to acknowledge and start to address the problem. But then again, it appears that even the folks at Time Warner Cable didn’t raise any questions about this until June, 2009.) 

So it’s back to the drawing boards – in a public notice the Commission has indicated that it will be releasing a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to seek comment on how to deal with this problem. In the meantime, the Commission is temporarily staying the effective date of this rule provision. The FCC further emphasized that other provision of the new rules would take effect as scheduled.

On another captioning complaints front, the Commission has announced in a separate public notice the implementation of a new electronic webform that will allow video programming distributors (VPD’s, a universe which includes cable and satellite operators, television stations and the like) to submit their contact information to the FCC more quickly, accurately, and efficiently. As part of the November, 2008, captioning complaint process, the Commission required VPD’s to submit their contact information by mail or by e-mail. While those options will remain, use of the new webform is strongly encouraged. Its use eliminates the risk of transcription errors by the Commission’s staff, lessens the staff time involved, electronically checks to make sure that all required data is provided, and makes the information available more quickly. In lauding the new system’s benefits, however, the Commission was a little less than clear on precisely how and where the electronic filing is to be done, but we are sure that all will become known.

The November, 2008, captioning complaints process – minus the complaint-forwarding aspect which, as noted above, is on indefinite hold – won’t take effect until the FCC has issued a public notice (in the Federal Register) advising that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has approved the process. According to OMB’s website, OMB approved the captioning complaints process last July. However, the Commission has not followed up with the required Federal Register notice of that approval, so the process is still technically not in place. When that will change, we do not know as yet. While we might expect the Public Notice announcing the effective date to be forthcoming shortly, you never know. One potential delaying factor that could crop up involves implementation of the electronic webform. Once the webform requirement kicks in, thousands of contact information filings will be expected within 30 days of the effective date. Obviously, the on-line form will need to work technically, so we may hope that any delays in implementation are the result of careful beta testing. In the interim, TV licensees and other VPD’s should be getting their contact information together.