Long in coming, closed captioning complaint process finally emerges; Contact information due by March 22, 2010

The gestation period for the closed captioning complaint process – which thus far has fallen somewhere between the gestation periods of giraffes (420-450 days) and sperm whales (480-590 days) – appears to have entered its final phase. 

The Commission first announced its new and (arguably) improved complaint process in early November, 2008. As of December, 2009, that process had still not become effective, even though the Office of Management and Budget had signed off on it in July, 2009. But now we are pleased to report that the FCC has announced that the new closed captioning complaint process is effective as of February 19, 2010 . . . except for Section 79.1(g)(3), which still isn’t.

Let’s put that exception off to the side for the moment and focus on the elements of the process that have (finally) become effective.

As of February 19, any viewer who believes that a video programming distributor (VPD) has failed to comply with captioning requirements may file a complaint – either with the FCC or with the VPD itself. (FYI – VPDs include, for these purposes, over-the-air broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors, such as cable operators and satellite TV operators.) The complaint must be in writing (fax, e-mail or snail mail), and must be submitted within 60 days of the alleged failure.

When a VPD receives a complaint – whether the complaint is sent (a) directly to the VPD or (b) to the FCC which then forwards it on to the VPD – the VPD has 30 days to respond in writing to the complainant. If the complainant isn’t satisfied with the response, he/she can then complain further to the Commission.

The newly effective rules also require VPDs to post in various places, within 30 days (i.e., by March 22, 2010) contact information of various sorts. First, VPDs must designate a telephone number, fax number, and e-mail address for purposes of receiving and responding immediately to any closed captioning concerns, such as technical problems which may cause captions to vanish or become garbled. Second, they must also provide contact information for closed captioning complaints of a more general and less immediate nature. That information must include the name of a person with primary responsibility for captioning issues and rule compliance, the person’s title or office, telephone number, fax number, mailing address, and e-mail address. All of this information must be posted on the VPD’s website (if it has one), included in billing statements for multichannel providers, and included in any local phone directory in which the VPD directly advertises or otherwise places commercial listings.

Perhaps more importantly, the VPD is now required to file its contact information with the Commission within 30 days of the rules’ effectiveness (again, by March 22, 2010). The Commission has set up a handy webpage which includes a link to a new electronic filing system just for this purpose – which the FCC specifically encourages VPDs to use – although the new rules also permit submissions by e-mail and/or in plain old paper-and-ink.

All contact information must be updated as necessary. (Website contact listings must be updated within ten days; listings on billing inserts must be updated by the billing cycle immediately following the changes; directories must be updated with the next publication.)

What about Section 79.1(g)(3), the sub-subsection that missed the effectiveness boat? That’s the provision that would require VPDs who receive a misdirected complaint to forward it along to the proper addressee. 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. But as we reported last December, such forwarding would entail the disclosure of certain personal information – and the Communications Act prohibits such disclosure. So the Commission has put a hold on this particular forwarding requirement until it can resolve that pesky problem. No word yet on when that might be.