Telling it like it is: audio description in Australia

Why governments and broadcasters need to tune in to the potential of audio description

Katie Ellis

Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

5 March 2018

It is time to consider the mainstream benefits of Audio Description for film and television, Katie Ellis writes.

Audio description (AD) is a track of narration describing important visual elements of a film, television show or live performance delivered between lines of dialogue to make it accessible to audiences who are blind or vision impaired.

The first instance of AD can be traced back to a radio DJ describing cinema in 1940s Spain, and it is now in widespread use on television internationally. But despite intensive lobbying by the Blindness sector and two successful trials on the ABC, it is not available on Australian broadcast television.

However, AD is finally gaining the attention of policymakers with the Greens seeking to make the trials permanent and an AD working group convened throughout 2017.

In 2015, I wrote on Policy Forum that AD should be legislated in the same way as captioning is in the Broadcasting Services Act to ensure access for people who are blind and vision impaired. According to article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the lack of AD on Australian television is a human rights violation.

When I interviewed Australian television audience members with vision impairments for a project on the accessibility of subscription video on demand, one participant told me:

“We have a gutless government which won’t take on the big corporations or take on the multi-nationals in charge of the content. Also the multi-nationals pay lip service to providing audio described content to Australians.”

It is disappointing that legislative measures have not been adopted in Australia; however, the example of captions may provide some clues as to the way forward in the current political climate.

As University of Wisconsin–Madison journalism professor Gregory Downey explains in his 2008 book Closed Captioning: Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television, captions were not taken seriously as a television access feature until D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences were able to identify users of captions beyond their community.

According to Downey, captions would benefit illiterate adults (13 per cent of the adult population), people learning English as a second language, and children learning to read (kindergarten to grade 3), therefore representing a large portion of the population. As a result, Downey wrote, arguments for captioning:

No longer pitted a profitable television audience against a minority viewing community; instead it offered a low-cost technology that would end up in every single American household.

Today captions have a significant mainstream audience, in large part due to Facebook’s autoplay feature. With over 85 per cent of Facebook users watching videos with the sound down, captions have become an essential feature of online videos.

More on this: Australia’s disability scheme marks a turning point

In the same way, unexpected audiences for AD are emerging because of user engagement. For example, the elderly, people with intellectual disabilities, and people whose first language is not English find benefits from the availability of AD. AD can also aid in the creation of image transcripts and databases, and in early childhood and university level education, including video-based medical education.

Subscription video-on-demand service Netflix currently offers the only consistent AD service in Australia. While AD had already been shown to benefit people who need to switch focus between watching television and other tasks, when Netflix introduced AD on all original programming, the Sense 8 audience discovered AD provided another useful layer of information.

Back in 2000 when the provision of AD was legislated in the US, the Federal Communications Commission noted that 60 per cent of the existing users of AD were not visually impaired. It is possible that such an audience exists in Australia too.

Of course, the human rights argument should have worked in Australia, which has ratified the UNCRPD, but it has not. It is time to consider the mainstream benefits of AD in this country.

As people increasingly use media in innovative and unexpected ways, Australian governments and broadcasters should support the provision of AD, primarily for audiences with vision impairments but also for the potentially rather large other audiences that stand to benefit.

While early captioning advocates and activists focused on the rights of people with hearing impairment to access and enjoy television as a form of social inclusion, it was only when these advocates could demonstrate the benefits of captioning for groups beyond those with hearing difficulties that the technology of closed captions really took off. AD offers similar mainstream benefits to audiences.

Broadcasters also stand to benefit from the innovative potential of AD, both in terms of capturing new audiences and the potential to retain the attention of existing audiences who might be distracted with other things. With multitasking activities effecting consumer engagement and advertising effectiveness, broadcasters, content providers, and advertisers should consider the innovative potential of supports to improve comprehension such as AD.

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