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Markey calls for captions on Net video

Goal is full access for disabled users

Representative Ed Markey, the bill's sponsor. Representative Ed Markey, the bill's sponsor.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 13, 2008

Nearly two decades after the federal government required television networks to provide text captions for hearing-impaired viewers, there's a move afoot to set the same standard for Internet video.

Democratic US Representative Ed Markey of Malden is backing a bill that would require major producers of Internet videos to add captions as well as "video description" soundtracks that describe the on-screen action for blind people.

The measure would also force changes in the design of television and telephone equipment to make the devices more accessible to the disabled. The goal, Markey said, is "to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as technology changes."

The bill would require TV networks to provide captioning and video description tracks when they stream their shows over the Internet. In addition, video description tracks would be made mandatory for traditional TV broadcasts.

Markey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, held hearings this month.

About half of US Internet users now watch video online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. While many log on to watch amateur videos at sites like YouTube, a growing number view prime-time programming from the four major broadcast TV networks and many cable TV channels. Few of these video streams include captions. For instance, the broadcast network NBC captions many of its Internet streams, but CBS does not.

"So many people are watching TV on their computers, it's basically TV," said Larry Goldberg, director of the Media Access Group at the Boston public television station WGBH. "Why shouldn't it be captioned, too?"

But Goldberg, who works with TV producers and Internet companies on media accessibility, said the captions embedded in TV shows since the early 1990s usually need to be overhauled to work on the Internet, because the shows contain fewer commercial breaks when they're streamed online.

In addition, captions and video descriptions must be compatible with many different media player programs found on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers. "There's no single common file format or way for all media players to handle captions," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said he's already at work on a solution. He's getting help from the Internet Captioning Forum, a consortium of technology companies that includes Time Warner Inc.'s AOL service, Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., and Yahoo Inc. "The content providers want to do this," he said. "They really do."

Markey's bill also would require captioning and video description soundtracks on phones that deliver video streams. Advocates acknowledge that fitting readable captions on such small screens poses tough technical challenges, but insist it can be done.

Karen Peltz Strauss, cofounder of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology in Washington, noted that captioned video already is available for users of Apple's popular iPhone. "With software and technology, this bill is very doable," Strauss said.

The bill would require changes in home TV equipment as well. "It's a huge challenge for the blind and visually impaired community to independently operate all the functions of their consumer electronics," said Eric Bridges, director of advocacy for the American Council for the Blind. For instance, on-screen menus make it hard for blind people to operate digital video recorders. Markey's law would require manufacturers to offer audio cues, such as a computer-generated voice to read the menus.

The Markey bill also would regulate telephone handsets that communicate over the Internet rather than the traditional phone system. Such handsets would be required to offer text-transmission features and support for hearing aids - technology that's already mandatory for traditional phone equipment.

Prasad Shroff, product line manager at Netgear Inc., said his Santa Clara, Calif., company's Internet-based phones do not contain such features because adding them would increase the cost of production. "If my target customer doesn't need that feature, I don't want to put that feature in," he said. But Shroff said that making the phones more accessible posed no major technical problems, and that Netgear would do so if required.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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