Monday, March 26, 2007

Could a channel for the visually impaired be available soon?

An application for a new TV channel catering to the visually impaired is pitting the two biggest English-language private broadcasters against each other and drawing opposition from the country's two largest cable operators.

It has also prompted advocates for the disabled to question whether more could be done with the money the channel is proposing to raise through a 20? monthly subscriber fee.

The application is from National Broadcast Reading Service Inc., a not-for- profit organization with a mandate to enhance media access for the blind and visually impaired. It already operates Voice Print --an audio programming service whereby volunteers read articles from newspapers and magazines. Cable and satellite providers are obliged to carry Voice Print, and their subscribers are charged 4? a month for the service.

Now, NBRS wants the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to approve a licence for the Accessible Channel. It wants the proposed specialty service carried on a revamped basic cable regime-- to be determined through CRTC hearings starting on Tuesday -- and has asked that a 20?-a-month subscriber fee be levied.

The Accessible Channel would air programming accompanied by described video technology, which offers a narrative description of a movie or TV program's key visual elements.

(Since 2001, English-language private analogue broadcasters have offered at least two hours per week of described video programming and have committed to four hours per week by 2008.)
NBRScites data indicating the number of Canadians classified as legally blind is set to climb from current levels, roughly 611,000, to 828,000 by 2020. And the proposed channel would be in line with the objectives of the Broadcasting Act, which states that programming accessible by disabled people should be provided within the Canadian broadcasting system "as resources become available."

The Accessible Channel has a major backer in CTV Inc., the country's largest private-sector broadcaster. CTV has agreed to be the "major program supplier" to the channel--or a minimum of 33% of all content. CTV has also pledged the fees it receives from NBRS will be directed to the Canadian Television Fund, which finances the production of Canadian content programming. In return, CTV is slated to get two of the five seats on the channel's board of directors.

The application has drawn fierce opposition, led by CanWest Global Communications Inc., the country's second largest conventional broadcaster (and owner of the National Post).

In a submission to the CRTC, Can- West said it was "disappointed" to learn NBRS entered into a pact with CTV, even though the Winnipeg-based company has provided funding to NBRS in the past and granted permission to NBRS's Voice Print to read from its 39 newspapers. "The benefits of this application inexplicably accrue almost entirely to one broadcasting entity," the CanWest submission said.

"Surely the Canadian broadcasting system would benefit from a more diverse programming approach on this proposed service, especially since the technological advances promised could certainly benefit a number of parties --not just CTV."


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