ESPN Seeks FCC Exemption from Video Rules for the Blind

Jan 19, 2024

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2024 – Cable’s most highly rated national sports channel is seeking an exemption from federal rules that require the provision of narrated audio descriptions to assist millions in the TV audience who are blind or visually impaired.

Disney-owned ESPN – the home of the iconic Sports Center, NFL games, and the College Football Playoffs – filed for the exemption today with the Federal Communications Commission. In recent weeks, Fox News and MNBC have filed for identical three-year exemptions.

The FCC has rules under a 2010 disabilities law that require the top-five-rated cable networks carried by large cable and satellite TV operators to provide 87.5 hours of audio descriptions per quarter. Fifty hours must be provided in prime time or during children's programming. The remaining 37.5 hours may be provided at any time between 6 a.m. and 11:59 p.m.

But the FCC carved out an exemption for a top-five-rated cable channel that airs, on average, less than 50 hours per quarter of live or near-live programming. ESPN is requesting an extension of its current exemption.

“ESPN’s programming is well-known to contain a mixture of live sporting events, live studio sports reporting shows, and replays of very-recently taped studio sports programs. This programming includes, among other things live and near-live games from and coverage of the NFL, the NBA, MLB, college football and college basketball,” the company said in its FCC exemption request.

ESPN, MSNBC, and Fox News each provided the FCC with schedule rundowns totaling the number hours of recorded programming aired on their channels. ESPN's covered 12 quarters, including calendar years 2021, 2022, and 2023.

“Based on this careful review … ESPN found that it aired, on average, 22.6 hours of non-exempt (i.e., non-live or near-live) programming during prime-time hours, which is below the 50-hour threshold set forth in the [FCC’s] rules,” ESPN said.

About 6 million Americans have vision loss and 1 million have blindness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On its website the FCC says “audio description is audio-narrated descriptions of a television program's key visual elements. These descriptions are inserted into natural pauses in the program's dialogue. Audio description makes TV programming more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired.”

Relying on Nielsen Company data, the FCC said in a Nov. 30, 2023 public notice that the top ten non-broadcast networks for the 2022 to 2023 ratings year were: Fox News Channel, ESPN, MSNBC, HGTV, Hallmark, TLC, TNT, TBS, Discovery, and History.

Fox, MSNBC, and ESPN are the only top-five-rated cable networks so far to seek exemptions. The FCC updates the list based on rating every three years.