Captioning may be lost for more than 200 TV programs.

NEW YORK (AP) – The U.S. Education Department has cut the money for captioning nearly 200 TV programs, citing a 1997 mandate from Congress only to pay for captioning of “educational, news and informational” programming. But advocates for the deaf say they haven’t been able to find out why the department has decided to finance some programs and not others, and who’s making these decisions.

“The department wants to ensure that over 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are not exposed to any non-puritan programming – never mind that the rest of the country may be allowed to be exposed to such,” said Kelby Brick, associate executive director of the National Association of the Deaf.

Left unclear, however, is how many of the shows on the government’s “disapproved” list have actually stopped being captioned.

The vast majority of the affected shows are either on cable networks or PBS, with most of the broadcast network fare being sports. Few first-run, broadcast network prime-time shows are affected; CBS says the network or producer pays to caption all of its prime-time programs anyway.

Among the shows cut off from government funds: MTV’s “Cribs,” Disney Channel’s “Lizzie McGuire,” reruns of “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle.”

But along with CBS, Fox also said that it’s picking up the cost to keep its programs captioned, and Nickelodeon is paying to keep children’s programs like “Rugrats” and “Fairly Odd Parents” captioned.

The federal government has been setting aside money to caption programming since 1959, said Robert Davila, a member of the National Council on Disability. In 1991, federal law required all TV sets larger than 13 inches sold in the United States to have built-in decoders to display captions, freeing deaf people from buying their own equipment.

By 2006, federal regulations will require that the vast majority of all programming have captioning, with the burden placed on the TV industry to pay for it, Davila said.

Until then, there are gaps in what’s being captioned.

“The timing of the department’s action is definitely the issue,” Davila said.

The federal government distributes about $12 million a year in grants for captioning and video description services, said Louis Danielson, head of the federal special education program that supervises captioning.

The department had to decide how to apportion this money, mindful of the congressional mandate that it go to education-oriented programming, he said. Many people who use these services want every program captioned, certainly the most popular ones.

“We don’t get to choose to ignore the Congress,” he said.

Danielson said an anonymous panel of consumers and experts determined which shows would be financed and which wouldn’t, adding that it would have been difficult to get their help if they hadn’t been promised anonymity.

But Nancy Bloch, the National Council on Disability’s executive director, said it was a secretive process that “amounts to censorship.”

Advocates concede that many of the programs cut off by the Education Department action, like “Pokemon” cartoons, Disney children’s movies or football games, aren’t really educational.

But these kind of shows help deaf children “learn about the trends, culture and society around them,” Bloch said.

Nancy Rarus, a retired educator who is deaf, said she enjoys programs like “Law & Order,” “Extreme Makeover” and “Boston Public” with captions. She remembers when she had no captions.

“Then captions came along and I became part of the mainstream,” Rarus said. “Now, with this I guess I’m being told to get out of the mainstream.”

Besides the deaf, captions are also used by people who are learning to speak English and on televisions in noisy places like health clubs, said the National Council on Disability.

AP-ES-02-19-04 1744EST

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