Audio Description: Making The Story Clear
"I saw that TV advert the other day and it made me think of you,” is a comment or text message that I’ve received a lot over the past few weeks. I’m not promoting or selling anything, so what are my friends talking about?
Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Research conducted in 2009 by Ofcom found that only 45% of adults in the UK were aware of AD. Yet, audio description is a vital service, with statistics from the Royal National Institute of Blind People indicating that almost 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss – that’s one person in thirty.
Over the past month, seventeen TV broadcasters have taken part in the national campaign to highlight the free service and its availability on Sky, Virgin, and AD-compatible Freeview boxes and TVs.
Regular AD users have welcomed the championing of a service that allows them to follow and enjoy their favourite TV programmes, while, some sighted people - if Twitter was anything to go by – were left scratching their heads as to why such a service even exists.
While this reaction is understandable to an extent, it takes just a few moments to think it through and realise that TV access provision is as important for the visually impaired audience as it is for the deaf and hearing impaired. Subtitling and sign language are both commonplace on our TV screens – so why shouldn’t there be similar provision for the blind?
The silence between the dialogue on TV shows is problematic for people with sight problems, making it difficult to follow what’s happening on-screen unless they happen to have a sighted person with them to describe what’s happening. That’s where AD comes in.
Audio Description is an audio narrative track that fits in-between the dialogue. It describes locations, facial expressions and body language, enabling viewers with sight problems to keep up with the visual elements that are happening on-screen.
At present in the UK, 10% of TV programming must carry AD, with some major broadcasters voluntarily providing AD for up to 20% of their output. Now in its twelfth year, the AD department at Red Bee Media (initially, as part of the BBC) produces between 200 – 300 hours of audio described programming each month for the BBC, UKTV, and Channel 4.
While Audio Description has been available in the UK for over a decade, the advent of digital TV has contributed greatly to the availability of the service. BBC’s iPlayer is the only on-demand service that provides an Audio Description section at present, but I’d like to think it’s only a matter of time before other broadcasters ‘catch-up’ in this respect.
In the future, it seems inevitable that as demand grows and quotas rise, more TV shows will have AD. Across the globe, social media is generating awareness of the service and offering a voice to users to give feedback and request AD provision. Other countries are starting to catch up; Australian network ABC is launching an Audio Description trial in mid-2012.
At Red Bee Media, we believe TV should be accessible to ALL of the audience, including those with hearing difficulties, or - in the case of Audio Description - visual impairment, because, quite simply, everyone should be kept in the picture.
With the UK bucking the trend, do you envisage Audio Description growing in popularity worldwide? Could AD ever be useful to people without visual impairments? A recent study has suggested it's helpful for people on the autism spectrum. I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on any of the above - @mary_sweeney
Mary Sweeney, Scripter, Audio Description
This post is part of our on-going blog series about access services