By BROOKS BOLIEK | 10/31/11 3:29 PM EDT
If a church broadcasts the word of God on TV without closed captions, it risks incurring the wrath of the FCC.
Some 300 small- to medium-sized churches can expect letters from the commission within the next few days explaining why their closed captioning exemptions were lifted for TV shows like “Power in the Word” and “Producing Kingdom Citizens.”
The FCC has been mailing the letters for the past few days to churches from Maine to California, explaining that the hundreds of exemptions are now rescinded and giving the programmers 90 days to reapply.
The churches were granted FCC exemptions from the closed captioning requirement under a 2006 commission decision known as the “Anglers Order” for the Anglers for Christ Ministries program that had argued for exemption from the rules.
While the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau used the Anglers Order as the model to grant at least 298 other exemptions, the full commission overturned that decision Oct. 20 after objections were raised from a coalition of organizations for the deaf and hard of hearing.
The churches may still be eligible to win an exemption from the rules if they can prove they can’t afford closed captioning, but they now have to make their case individually.
“This was a process that went awry,” said Craig Parshall, senior vice president of the National Religious Broadcasters, an international association of Christian communicators. “Now, we are going back to Square One.”
Advocacy groups for the deaf contend that the bureau erred when it granted the exemptions en masse because that created a virtual blanket exemption for nonprofit organizations. Under the closed captioning law, programmers can win an exemption if they can prove that the cost of the captioning will cause an undue economic hardship.
The groups wrote to the FCC asking commissioners to overrule the bureau order arguing that the order “improperly and unilaterally established a new class of exempt programming.”
While the commission’s decision has an immediate impact on churches across the country, it isn’t directed at religious organizations in particular, Parshall said. Small- and medium-sized churches just happened to apply for exemptions under the closed captioning law’s exception for TV shows where paying for captioning is an undue economic burden, Parshall explained.
Advocates for the deaf said they were pleased the commission was taking action on the issue, and hoped that it would make more programming accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired.
“Now, we look forward to viewing more TV shows that were not captioned before,” said Jim House, spokesman for Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. “It is our hope that those producers affected by the decision would see the positive benefits of making their shows accessible to more and more viewers and find that it is the right thing to do.”
Religious broadcasters want to reach the deaf community, but requiring churches across the country to close caption their TV programs could force the programming off the air, Parshall said.
“We believe our message needs to get out to the deaf and disabled communities,” Parshall explained. “All we want is a sensible regulatory structure that recognizes the plight of the small Christian broadcaster.”