More than meets the ear

Why there might be a greater audience for audio description than expected

Katie Ellis

Government and governance, Law, Science and technology, Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

25 January 2019

It’s time for Australia to step up its game and provide audio description on free-to-air television – not just for those who are blind and vision impaired, but also for the multitaskers, Katie Ellis writes.

This Australia Day, the popular Western Australia Skyworks celebration will be audio described for people who are blind and vision impaired. The NSW New Year’s Eve Fireworks were also audio described, as were the Channel 9 Carols by Candlelight last Christmas.

Audio description provides vital social inclusion for those in our community who cannot see. It allows them to enjoy and take part in cultural experiences that are available to everyone else.

Audio description is a track of narration describing important visual elements of a television show, movie, or event – usually delivered between lines of dialogue (for an example of the audio description for the movie The Lion King, click here).

The first example of an audio described film was a 1929 screening of Bulldog Drummond in a cinema in New York City. With the introduction of sound to cinema, studios targeted people who are blind and vision impaired as a potential new audience. In Australia, people can access audio described films at major cinema chains. This audience is also recognised by Netflix who offer audio description on all original programming.

Australian free-to-air television, however, does not offer audio description. Last year I published an article on Policy Forum about Australia being the only English-speaking nation in the OECD not to offer audio description. That is still the case though it has not always been that way.

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Historically, Melbourne-based radio station 3RPH offered audio described simulcasts of both sporting events and popular television dramas during the 1980s and 1990s. Towards the end of the 1990s, blind advocates called for the introduction of audio description at the same time as digital television.

While that did not eventuate, the ABC ran two separate trials – one on free-to-air television in 2012 and an iView trial in 2015-2016. Following these trials, the Department of Communications and the Arts convened an audio description working-group – of which I was a member – to discuss options for the provision of audio description on television.

Three potential platforms were identified: broadcast on television, online catch-up television portals, or via a secondary app. Each of these methods is possible in Australia.

Most smart televisions include an audio description function in their accessibility menus. The Skyworks and New Year’s Eve Fireworks are both delivered to audiences using a secondary app, while the Carols by Candlelight was accessible via Channel 9’s online portal 9Jumpin.

Audio description is now available via broadcast television in the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, France, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Korea, Thailand, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and a number of other European and Asian countries. This is not the case in Australia.

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This week, Blind Citizens Australia launched a new campaign – TV4all – asking Australians to contact their local MPs to ask for their support for legislation that mandates audio description on free-to-air television.

A story on ABC announcing this campaign included a statement on behalf of Senator Mitch Fifield that both rejected the need for legislation and encouraged broadcasters to consider options to offer access services.

Australian broadcasters – like Hollywood studios following the introduction of sound in film – should consider the audiences who might benefit from audio description in our increasingly mobile digital world.

Research shows that audio description has a significant potential audience beyond the vision impaired community. Sighted audiences are increasingly finding value in this service, just as hearing audiences have with captions on television.

Recent research conducted by Curtin University with both sighted and vision impaired television audiences uncovered a demand for audio description on free-to-air television.

Sighted participants highlighted the benefits of audio description when multitasking between daily activities. Being able to enjoy television while doing other things – when screen visibility is obscured or attention is divided – was important to these individuals.

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One participant said, “For me personally, it reduces the reliance on the visual aspect of the shows to follow what is going on, making it easier to follow when I’m trying to do things while watching.

“I think it opens up more opportunities. Previously I would have only watched a show if I were able to actually give my attention to the screen, however (audio description) would allow me to divide my attention and multitask.”

Audio description was also seen as a way to make visual media more accessible when one might be unable to fully focus on a screen – for example, during hands-on activities that require intermittent focused attention. These included cooking, practising a musical instrument, caring for children, and crafting.

This potentially large mainstream audience seeking to multitask and experiment with digital media, combined with over 453,000 Australians living with vision impairment or blindness, represent a significant portion of the audience.

There are clear economic and business opportunities for Australian broadcasters to go beyond traditional stationary television ‘viewing’ in an increasingly mobile digital world. Audio description might be the key to unlocking the future of television.

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