The Audio Description (AD) landscape is constantly evolving: where once we would have exclusively described TV programmes for traditional terrestrial broadcasters, we are now being called upon to work on more and more diverse content on a variety of platforms.
This comes with many challenges. As Audio Description providers, we are always at the centre, juggling the intentions of content-makers with the needs of our clients who broadcast them (and who hire us) and our audio-description consumers, who are an important and significant part of the audience as a whole.
In our ideal world, content creators would bear accessibility in mind at some stage in the production process. Realistically, this is probably a big ask, and part of our job is to work around any problems in order to make the content as accessible as possible. Clients, however, especially when it comes to choosing what gets audio described, can help enormously. An understanding of what we do and our audience’s needs, goes a long way. And we’re here to help. When we at Red Bee are directly involved in AD scheduling, we select the best possible programmes to suit what we do. So, for example, when working with clients like the BBC and Channel 4, we’ll choose dramas like Homeland, nature documentaries like The Blue Planet, and primetime soap operas like EastEnders – programmes that lend themselves to audio description and that are part of the national conversation. This ensures that our audience are getting the most out of our service, and a happy audience means a happy client.
In terms of new types of content, one avenue we’ve been exploring recently has been the audio describing of adverts. Here, we experience first-hand the problem of content-makers having different priorities that, at times, conflict with our aims. Adverts are often pacey, with punchy messages and with few opportunities to describe what’s going on visually. They often come with legal small-print that qualifies their message, but there’s simply no time for us to read it out. A recent shampoo commercial we worked on showed a woman hitting a punch-bag in a gym. In 30 seconds of screen time, in the gaps in her voiceover, I literally only had time to name the shampoo, describe her hair and say she was pounding a punchbag. No time to set the scene or describe what she was wearing. We were just in and out (a bit like me at the gym!).
A recent success story that beautifully demonstrated how advertisers and clients can work together with us and our audience for a greater good was Channel 4/RNIB’s ‘A Very Special Ad Break’, where we at Red Bee audio-described a series of adverts (O2, Paco Rabanne, Amazon, Freeview, Specsavers). These were broadcast to show a sighted audience what it was like living with different sight-loss conditions.
It was innovative and interesting to work on, and it was because we were all working together so that editorial problems like the reading-out of legal terms-and-conditions could be overcome, simply by allowing the time at the end of the advert for the describer to say them. On one level, these adverts were made accessible to our visually impaired audience and showed the legitimacy of audio describing this type of content, but on another very important level, they also delivered a powerful message to the sighted audience (who include content creators), informing them about the nature of sight loss, as well as showing how a visual medium can be made accessible for those without sight.
Each type of content will come with its own set of editorial challenges, but through campaigns like this clients and advertisers raise awareness, both with their brands and of our service, and with a better understanding perhaps content makers will be more aware of accessibility in future. Our audience will reap the benefits if they do.
Marie Campbell, Audio Describer at Red Bee Media