Video description rules bring FCC into the ratings game … every three years

When you’re trying to track down the national rankings of video programming networks, you may not think to check with the FCC – but, thanks to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), that’s the first place you should look. Every three years, at least.

As long-time readers may recall, back in 2011 the Commission, pursuant to Congress’s direction in the CVAA, adopted extensive video description rules applicable to broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs). As to the latter, the rules require that MVPDs with more than 50,000 subscribers must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of video-described prime time or children’s television on the five most popular cable channels.

Popularity in this context is determined based on (take a deep breath) an average of the national audience share during prime time of nonbroadcast networks that reach 50 percent or more of MVPD households and have at least 50 hours per quarter of prime time programming that is not live or near-live or otherwise exempt under the video description rules. (The relevant Nielsen ratings period this time around was September 30, 2013-September 28, 2014; the relevant stats were Nielsen’s “live +7 day” ratings, i.e., the ones that include incremental viewing that takes place during the seven days following a telecast.)

While the calculation of Top Five nets could presumably be performed annually (or even more often), the Commission chose to update its list only every three years. The first three-year term has screamed by since the 2011 adoption of the rules. And as promised, the Media Bureau has now announced the Top Five nonbroadcast video networks that will trigger MVPD video-description obligations until July 1, 2018. (Actually, it announced the Top Ten, presumably to provide for alternates should they be needed.)

The lucky networks:

USA Network, ESPN, Turner Network Television, TBS Network, History. The next five runners-up were: Disney Channel, Fox News Channel, Nickelodeon, A&E Network, and FX.

Video description requirements for the new Top Five will kick in as of July 1, 2015. Until then, the currently reigning Top Five (you know, the ones the FCC identified back in 2011) will continue to be subject to those requirements. The current top five are: USA, the Disney Channel, TNT, Nickelodeon, and TBS.

You might think that Disney will be dropping off the list come July. Not so fast. The rules don’t apply to networks that provide fewer than 50 hours per quarter that is not live or near-live (i.e., broadcast within 24 hours of recording). That’s why ESPN (as well as Fox News) didn’t make the first list, and why we expect that ESPN will be axed from the latest list. If ESPN goes, Disney should be next up.

Any network that thinks it should be excluded from the Top Five has an opportunity, for 30 days following the publication of the list, to seek an exemption. Since the FCC’s notice doesn’t indicate that the list will be published in the Federal Register, it’s probably a good idea to assume that that 30-day period runs from January 7 to February 6, 2015.

We suspect, but can’t guarantee, that, once any exemption requests have been ruled on, the Commission will issue a follow-up public notice closer to July 1 to notify all affected MVPDs of the final Top Five. Check back here for updates.