Audio Description…live.  On national TV. For one of THE most important international sporting events this year – the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Daunting, much? Yes. Did we manage it? Yes, we did. And here’s how…

In early 2016, Channel 4 asked us to provide live and ‘open’ access services (Audio Description (AD), and British Sign Language (BSL) by Deaf signers) for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

In addition, they wanted to provide ‘open’ AD and BSL for the 4Seven repeat of the daily Highlights show, and The Last Leg.

A slew of meetings, rehearsals, and debriefs ensued as we collaborated with Channel 4 to figure out how it would work – from both a technical and editorial point of view.

This was no small feat. It was a multi-site operation involving Channel 4’s headquarters in central London, and Ericsson’s sites at White City and Ealing, in West London.

A live simulcast of the events meant that Audio Description commentary and BSL would be available on 4Seven, while the Channel 4 presenters provided their commentary on Channel 4. The BSL matched the commentary from the Channel 4 feed, because the AD commentary was geared specifically for the visually impaired audience.

The set-up was trialled in July on an episode of Undercover Boss. Working with my colleague, Scott, we viewed the episode beforehand and wrote an AD script, which we then read live on air, ensconced in a voiceover booth at Channel 4.

Then, it was time to get ready for Rio.

So how do you do LIVE Audio Description? AD is opportunist as a rule, utilising the gaps between dialogue to tell users what’s happening on-screen. With a clean feed on 4Seven, we didn’t have to worry about clashing with commentary from the Channel 4 presenting team.

However, with us providing the ONLY audio on 4Seven, it meant we had to provide an ‘Audio Described commentary’ – regular Audio Description wouldn’t cut it in this instance. In addition to describing the visuals, we needed to drop facts and figures into the mix, providing some regular style commentary so the audience were fully informed.

Scott and I did our research, and practised, using footage of previous ceremonies. More detailed information started to come through from Rio, and we incorporated that into our notes.

I’ll be honest – our previous live TV experience was, well, minimal. We were both acutely aware we should be as prepared as possible, but be ready to go with the flow of the ‘performance’. I study comedy improvisation in my spare time, and that combined with Scott’s professional acting skills helped us to establish that good rapport on-air.

And, on Wednesday 7th September, we went to air at 2215 and provided LIVE Audio Description commentary for almost FOUR HOURS for the Opening Ceremony. And then we went back and did it all again for the Closing Ceremony on Sunday 18th September.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who was involved with the process. It was very well received by all who tuned in, and most importantly by AD users and Channel 4. If you listened to our live AD, we’d be interested in your feedback.

Catch up with both Ceremonies on All4.

Mary Sweeney, Audio Describer