KCRA investigated by feds over closed captioning issue

The FCC notified the station of a complaint over an alleged lack of captions during Gov. Newsom's COVID press conferences in March.
The satellite news truck for KCRA-TV Sacramento. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Federal regulators launched an investigation earlier this year against Sacramento’s NBC affiliate after receiving a complaint regarding the station’s coverage of Governor Gavin Newsom’s public briefings at the start of the coronavirus health pandemic.

In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) informed KCRA-TV (Channel 3) that it had received an informal complaint from a viewer that closed captioning services were not available across various channels during the governor’s daily press updates.

Governor Newsom began holding once-daily public in early March shortly after he issued a shelter-at-home order that triggered the closure of public spaces, including businesses, throughout California. The updates were streamed on social media accounts connected to the governor’s office and featured a sign language interpreter in the lower-right corner of the video.

The governor’s office regularly held press updates around 12 p.m., which coincided with lunchtime news broadcasts on many stations throughout the state. KCRA is one of two stations in the Sacramento market with a noon newscast.

In April, FCC regulators received a complaint that alleged several stations failed to display closed captioning during the governor’s press briefing and occasionally obscured the sign language interpreter that accompanied the video feed distributed by the governor’s office. Regulators focused their investigation on KCRA because the station was explicitly mentioned in the complaint.

Federal law requires the presence of closed captioning or a similar mechanism on broadcast television to make programs accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. A separate federal law requires the presence of closed captioning whenever television programming is simultaneously streamed on the Internet. News programs, including live broadcasts, are not exempt from the requirement.

To comply with the requirement, some television stations display closed captioning from TelePrompTer feeds during newscasts, which can be substantially different with what is heard on television. KCRA is an exception: The station contracts through the National Captioning Institute, a third-party service that provides real-time captioning for live broadcasts.

After being notified of the complaint, KCRA management reviewed a copy of its March 25 newscast to check for the presence of closed captions, according to a letter sent to FCC regulators by Stephen Hartzell, an attorney representing KCRA’s parent company Hearst Television.

Hartzell said KCRA confirmed that captions were present during the governor’s briefing that day. An interpreter present in the video feed provided by the governor’s office was also shown on screen, although KCRA’s logo partially obscured the interpreter’s left hand, according to a screen capture of the broadcast present in the letter and reviewed by The Desk.

After confirming the presence of captions in the broadcast, KCRA management reached out to the Sacramento woman who filed the complaint.  Hartzell said conversations and emails between the woman and KCRA led station officials to believe that the complaint was “more a general concern as opposed to an actual complaint.”

“Because of the high number of daily updates related to COVID-19 that were — and are — being broadcast by a variety of news outlets, [the complainant] expressed her general concerns that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is relying more than ever on closed-captioning and ASL to receive time-sensitive information and important updates, and that not all stations are performing up to the standards expected by the deaf/hard-of-hearing community,” Hartzell wrote. “Understandably, [her] concerns and frustration led her to request in the complaint that the FCC ‘please inform all California stations they must consistently caption their ongoing COVID-19 updates.'”

After reviewing the footage and reaching out to the viewer, Hartzell said KCRA believed there was no violation of federal rules regarding closed captioning. The letter included attachments from KCRA general manager Elliott Troshinsky and news director Derek Schnell acknowledging their review of the complaint made to federal regulators earlier this year. (Troshinsky announced his retirement from the station in May.)

The FCC’s investigation against the station is ongoing, though it will likely conclude in KCRA’s favor and with no enforcement action, according to an official with knowledge of the situation who spoke on background.

Though KCRA officials reassured the viewer and the FCC of its commitment to providing accessible information to the deaf and hard of hearing, the station stumbled recently when a graphic blocked the view of a CAL FIRE interpreter during at least three wildfire press briefings.

The first mishap occurred during a KCRA live stream of a CAL FIRE press conference on August 28. A superimposed graphic reading “LNU LIGHTNING COMPLEX UPDATE” partially obscured a sign language interpreter provided in the CAL FIRE video feed, which was distributed by the public safety agency on Facebook Live.

The station removed the graphic about halfway into the press conference when a CAL FIRE official urged broadcasters to “make sure that our interpreter remains within the shot as you re-share this.”

Despite the reminder, KCRA eventually resumed using the problematic graphic which partially blocked CAL FIRE sign language interpreters during at least two other press conferences streamed by the station.

Though the station’s graphic made sign language interpreters unavailable in at least three wildfire update briefings streamed last month, KCRA is unlikely to face regulatory action in those instances because federal closed captioning and accessibility rules only apply when streamed content is simultaneously aired on television.

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