Campaigns by the Australian blindness sector for audio-described television have been a series of frustrating episodes with no finale, Katie Ellis writes.
Australia is the only OECD nation not to provide audio description on television.
Audio description allows people who are blind or vision impaired access to television and other visual media via an audio description of important visual elements delivered between lines of dialogue.
According to Emma Bennison, CEO of Blind Citizens Australia, the Australian blindness sector has been advocating for this accessibility feature to be provided on free-to-air television for twenty years.
“We have shown extraordinary patience and a willingness to work collaboratively with Government through the various trials and consultation processes, but twenty years is too long, and we will no longer allow Governments to ignore us,” she said.
The trials Bennison refers to were two offered by the ABC, one on free-to-air television in 2012 and an iView trial in 2015-2016. There have been no moves to date to make either trial permanent.
The only consistent audio description Australians have access to is via Netflix or iTunes – in other words, subscription services.
Example of Audio Description (content warning – adult themes and violence):
However, throughout 2017 the Department of Communications and the Arts convened a working group (of which I was a member) to discuss options to provide an audio description service within the Australian context. The group handed its final report to the minister in December 2017.
After a five-month wait, this report was released to the public on Wednesday last week. However, there remains widespread frustration amongst the Blindness sector that the report won’t take Australia any closer to achieving audio description, as the government has not indicated a roadmap for its introduction.
Karen Knight, General Manager of Advocacy at Vision Australia, expressed frustration at the lack of clear leadership from the government on this issue:
“We waited nearly six months to finally see a copy of this report and with its release, we expected a proposed pathway that the government might take to introduce audio description in Australia… After years upon years of working with the government on this important issue, this is a clear indication of their unwillingness to act.”
The report identifies three possible ways audio description could be delivered in Australia, yet does not make a clear recommendation. The three options it identifies are providing audio description via broadcast television, through online catch-up television, or via a dedicated audio description app.
Each option has their positives and negatives, and as the report notes, different stakeholders prefer different methods. The Blindness sector prefers the free-to-air option, while broadcasters believe an audio description app has the “potential to increase accessibility to AD more quickly and more economically than either the broadcast or online options considered”.
Over the past five years I have interviewed Australian television audiences with vision impairments about the lack of audio description on television for several research projects. Many have expressed frustration that Australian shows are available overseas with audio description but there is no mechanism to offer it in the country in which they are made.
Neighbours is a particularly sore point, as it is available in the UK with audio description but not in Australia. As one participant explained to me:
“…there’s lots of blind citizens and members that love the [ABC] trial, that are very much involved in the trial and would love to see audio description built in some way here in Australia. It would be fantastic. It happens in the UK and there’s plenty in Canada, in the US and other places… An example, for instance, Neighbours, which is an Australian show, is audio-described in the UK, but not audio-described here. Unbelievable.”
Both Vision Australia and Blind Citizens Australia have responded to the release of the report with calls for legislation or regulation in this area. However, the terms of reference for the working group clearly called for alternatives to regulation.
In the international context, both legislation and a lack of legislation have produced better results than we have here.
In 2012, OfCom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communication industries, created The code on television access to help encourage accessibility for people with vision impairments. This code stipulates AD targets up to a total of 10 per cent of content after five years of broadcasting, while still allowing for some exemptions if audience share is less than 0.05 per cent, or where there are technical or financial difficulties. Following the introduction of this code, broadcasters began exceeding their minimum requirements, with some achieving 100 per cent.
Coinciding with the release of the Australian working group final report, OfCom released a report of the availability of AD for on-demand television, an unregulated medium, finding that AD is available for 11 per cent of programming.
Between 2000 and 2010, governments in the US have introduced various measures to provide audio description on both broadcast and online television. At the moment, broadcasters in the US must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of audio-described programming on television. With CBS exceeding this mandated requirement by more than 200 per cent, and having recently acquired Australia’s Channel 10, they are in a position to corner this market in Australia.
In addition to these examples of successful legislation, some countries have effectively embraced a non-legislative approach.
For example, in New Zealand, 40 hours of AD is available across three channels (TV ONE, TV2 and TV ONE plus 1). The service, which is government funded, began in 2011 with two hours a week. From 2013, AD was provided by the federally funded Able who both source existing AD content and create their own tracks. The service, which is used by three per cent of all New Zealanders and 72 per cent of that country’s blind and vision impaired community, is offered only on terrestrial broadcast television.
Similarly, in Italy, despite the lack of official legislation, AD is available on the public broadcaster Radiotelevisione italiana (RAI) and airs on a total of 13 channels across RAI1, RAI2, RAI3 and RAIPremium. The number of AD hours available rose from 387 in 2012 to 574 in 2014. In addition to local programming, some international television series and movies are audio described.
With colleagues in 2016 and earlier this year, I made the case for the introduction of legislation for audio description on Australian free-to-air and on-demand television. However, regardless of whether legislation is introduced in this country, the government must show clear leadership on this issue and offer some incentive to introduce this vital accessibility feature and innovative technology.