Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Intervention in CRTC application Nº 2006-1579-2

This intervention in the application by the National Broadcast Reading Service (NBRS) for a so-called Accessible Channel is submitted by Joe Clark, Toronto, dated 2007.03.07.

Permanent location

This intervention is permanently located at the address:

The channel is wrong in principle

Separate is never equal, and a segregated channel allegedly accessible to blind people is no substitute for actual equality. The entire broadcasting system must be made accessible, not a single ghetto channel.

The channel replicates the failed centralized-charity model

NBRS’s business model was predicated on owning entire charitable “categories,” like radio reading services and audio description. But NBRS was willing to perpetuate a Canadian dichotomy and permit the establishment of a separate reading service in Quebec. Additionally, it was quite surprised to find private-sector competitors eating away at its cherished description market, with its lucrative initial $5,000-an-hour monopoly fees. Nonetheless, a leopard does not change its spots and NBRS now wants to own another category – the only allegedly accessible channel in the country.

As such, and as with its reading service, NBRS wants to be the only place a blind person can go for information. And since a nonprofit corporation would operate such a monopoly, the impression left is – yet again – one of segregation: Blind people should not be full participants in Canadian society, as by being able to watch and understand whatever TV shows they want, but should be fobbed off onto exactly one pseudocharity, even if it fails to provide for their full needs. Those with a keen sense of history will recognize the foregoing as the failed CNIB model.

To reiterate: The goal is equality of citizens, not a segregated TV channel. A centralized-charity model results in exclusion and compartmentalization, not equality.

The channel does not actually fix the problems it claims to fix

If the problems, as attested, are that onscreen menu systems are occasionally hard for a blind person to use and that SAP audio is blocked by some distributors, then fix those problems. A segregated special TV channel does nothing to rectify those problems. If licensed, the channel would stand as a reason not to fix the problems. In fact, fixing those problems would threaten the channel’s rationale.

If NBRS were actually committed to accessibility, it would be spending its untaxable charitable millions working to solve the actual problem rather than setting up a separate money-making enterprise.

Of course the new channel will displace other audio description

NBRS can try to dress it up all it wants, but of course a separate ghetto channel for the blind will displace audio description on other channels. Tell me: How much aboriginal programming has been broadcast on networks since APTN got its licence? Once there’s a ghetto in place, other broadcasters don’t want to touch it. In fact, that’s built into the CRTC licensing process: As a rule, only one channel per genre is permissible.

The existence of NBRS’s planned channel could act as a credible counterargument for any requirement to provide closed audio description. Broadcasters coming up for renewal or applying for new channels could argue that they don’t have to provide description since there’s already a channel that does nothing but air description. And CRTC commissioners, resentful of or indifferent to accessibility as they are, may be swayed by such an argument.

The channel is a ploy for ongoing subscriber funding for an organization that is otherwise nonviable

According to NBRS’s 2005–2006 annual report, revenues from the mandatory pass-through fee for VoicePrint amounted to $3,707,908, fully 73% of its total revenues. NBRS’s most recent filing with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) Charities Directorate lists a tiny $39,130 in revenue from sale of goods and services and $4,325,101 in other revenue. That same filing lists about $1.8 million in three categories of expenses (office supplies, occupancy costs, “professional and consulting fees”).

While full details are not published, a reasonable interpretation of these figures is as follows:

NBRS wouldn’t be a viable business if it weren’t able to pick Canadian subscribers’ pockets for a service they scarcely ever use, and in some cases simply cannot. NBRS appears to believe the goose can lay another golden egg, this time in the form of another set of mandatory fees for a channel that won’t even solve the accessibility problem that is its claimed raison d’être.

NBRS admits (in a deficiency report dated 2007.01.11) that “[t]here is no business case for [the channel] without a regulated passthrough fee and mandatory digital basic carriage,” and elsewhere admits it would have almost no leverage to negotiate carriage if the channel were a normal Category 2 digital specialty service. NBRS flatly admits the channel isn’t viable without forcing every anglophone in the country to pay for it.

Open description is best provided across all sources and handled by distributors

Open description is a viable method of delivering audio description to blind viewers. But if it is to be done at all, experience shows it should happen across the board to all described shows and should be handled by the cable or satellite operator. Open description works well on ExpressVu, which has no significant capacity bottlenecks and can transmit essentially every described program with open description (on up to 15 channels). Such an arrangement adds convenience for the viewer while preserving freedom of choice. A segregated channel that runs at most 24 hours of programming a day, all of it hand-picked by the channel owner, does none of that.

VoicePrint blocks audio description on Newsworld

The documentation at least admits that Second Audio Program on Newsworld is taken up by VoicePrint, a sibling service to the one proposed. Since there’s exactly one SAP channel on an analogue TV feed, you get VoicePrint or audio description, but not both. As such, NBRS has obstructed any use of audio description of programming aired on Newsworld – a channel where it is manifestly applicable, as on Newsworld’s many documentaries.

As the proposed channel ostensibly attempts to rectify the problem of absent or unavailable described programming, NBRS could at least be honest enough to admit that its own organization is part of that problem. VoicePrint contributes to the limitation of described programming that putatively inspired this application for a new network. And, if NBRS gets its way, you’ll pay twice for the privilege, via mandatory fees for VoicePrint and the new channel.

Supporting documentation contradicts some of the application’s claims

In what is surely the worst-written technical report of the decade, Stubbs Solutions claims that “the hardware that is needed to [listen to audio description] – from the set-top box to the television sets themselves – assistance from a sighted person is required to activate SAP.” (Actual grammar as in original.) In fact, if you wade through the pages and pages of fractured English and bad type, you discover that Rogers digital and analogue cable and ExpressVu provide full access to audio description on SAP, while Cogeco is technically equipped for it and Star Choice blocks it.

Just to make this point clearer, turning SAP on or off on Rogers digital cable:

The keystrokes are Menu uparrow rightarrow Select. Did you understand that from the Stubbs report?

Where’s the problem? It appears to rest with Cogeco and Star Choice – in the latter case, surely the very first example in living memory where Shaw has caused harm to the Canadian broadcasting system. But there is no systemic problem. While some subscribers may be stuck with Cogeco cable and may not be able to subscribe to ExpressVu (e.g., if they live in an apartment building), pretty much everyone else in the country isn’t and can. For many or most subscribers, an accessible option is available.

In any event, the same report makes a big show of listing, in too-small type, the myriad channels tested on Rogers and Cogeco. Given that only some stations have to broadcast audio description or are able to transmit SAP or both, the list comprises dozens of irrelevant channels and makes the situation look worse than it is, at least to a reader with the same level of acumen as the report’s author.

The report, furthermore, notes that ExpressVu reads out loud and lists in writing all the described shows to be broadcast on a given day. (That service, by the way, was my idea; I recommended it in a consultant’s report [PDF] in 2002.) Such a practice directly undercuts the claimed need for a segregated channel, but NBRS proposes to do the same thing on its own new channel. Any such airings would probably not constitute “programming” in any legal sense.

Stubbs reiterates AudioVision’s untested ideology that description must be exactly contemporaneous (in their jargon, “congruent”) with the visual events it describes. He also does not verify that the programs he tried to watch with description actually had description in the first place; by his own admission, listings can be inaccurate.

The claimed “Summary of SAP study” shows that, as with onscreen menus, the problem is localized. Halifax is apparently a lousy place to watch description (if you choose to subscribe to Eastlink cable), while Calgary is a pretty good place. Either city would work well with ExpressVu, a fact that isn’t stated. The problem of inaccessibility is, by the claims in NBRS’s own submission, strictly local or limited. It is not endemic or national. Creating a segregated TV network sidesteps the problem rather than solving it.

Claimed viewership figures are inconsistent with published evidence

The report on NBRS focus groups by Strategic, Inc. notes (p. 4) that “the amount of time spent with television [by visually-impaired people] is less than two-thirds that of the national average,” at 15 vs. 26.9 hours per week for everyone above the age of two, “based on 2005/06 Nielsen [d]ata.”

First of all, can three-year-olds understand described television shows? All of the focus-group participants surveyed were at least 18 years of age. Shall we compare apples to apples?

Such low viewership figures do not square with the existing attested reports. Packer and Kirchner (1997) report viewership rates in the range of 24–29 hours per week for their visually-impaired subjects, almost equivalent to the nonblind sample attributed to Nielsen. It defies logic to assume that U.S. and Canadian viewers with visual impairments could show such a disparity. The Nielsen numbers must be incorrect. If adjusted for the same age ranges as Packer and Kirchner, I assume the actual viewership numbers would be similar across the board. In short, blind and sighted people watch roughly the same amount of TV. And in any case, low usage is no excuse for inaccessibility.

Further doubt is cast when “Internet” is listed as a reason why blind viewers watch less TV. Not all blind or low-vision people need adaptive technology to use online programs of all kinds, but of the many who do, only some people have them. You’re already dealing with a sub-minority of the entire population with visual impairments. Further, Web sites are more likely to be inaccessible than TV shows are. Blind people cannot simply boot up the computer if they don’t feel like watching TV.

Lists of available described shows are selective

“NBRS Programming Report” by Logos lists a superficially impressive number of described shows (again using bad typography). But:

The accounting structure is fishy

NBRS, a registered charity, proposes setting up another nonprofit to act as a front for the new TV channel. The ostensible reason is to permit retained earnings – remember, this really is all about money – to be donated back to other charities, “including NBRS.” (Another claimed reason, that the channel will have to contract out for captioning, is clearly moot, as NBRS can already hire suppliers. It spent $1,534,505 in professional and consulting fees, according to its CRA filing. Presumably some of that money paid for the consultants’ reports for the proposed channel.)

If this is really an aboveboard operation, why set up a shell corporation more reminiscent of a Cayman Islands–style tax dodge?

The applicant has a conflict of interest

The applicant plays down the fact that it is asking nearly every TV subscriber in the country to pay for a network that uses a sibling company’s services. NBRS is asking us to pay for a perpetual market for AudioVision Canada. Presumably the channel would use AudioVision Canada as exclusive describer of new or undescribed programming. The channel would be a feeder operation, paid for by every anglophone TV subscriber, for the channel’s sibling company.

(In an additional irony, if closed audio description is working so badly in Canada, why is AudioVision still in that business, and will it get out of that business if the channel is approved?)

I wonder if NBRS would accept a condition of licence that all new description must be handled by companies completely unaffiliated with NBRS.

Live audio description is rare, and the proposed form of live audio description never has been attempted

The applicant proposed to describe Canada AM on a 15-minute time delay. Live audio description is the norm in theatre, though it is usually done from a script or notes and after a rehearsal. Live description on TV has been attempted four times in the English-speaking world (and I have tapes of two of those). There are no tested standards or even mechanical techniques for live description of a multi-hour program airing five days a week. Based on experience, AudioVision Canada is the describer least likely to be technically or professionally capable of doing what has never been done before.

It is, in any event, in serious doubt that a chirpy early-morning interview show is a priority for live description compared, say, to an actual newscast.

The applicant will probably have no legal right to describe U.S. or other shows

In its proposal to add description to certain undescribed U.S. shows, NBRS reveals its naïveté in the marketplace. If the shows aren’t described at present, it probably isn’t for lack of trying, and from sources closer to Hollywood and more credible than NBRS is. NBRS will probably be laughed out of town in its efforts to secure the rights to describe A-list American shows. Or the rights may expensive, as NBRS admits (deficiency report, 2007.01.11), or unaffordable.

In any event, description is not easy do quickly, and I know at least one producer who has had a hard time getting a short-turnaround job done by AudioVision Canada. These are, you’ll recall, exactly the same people who now claim they’ll be able to pull down U.S. shows off satellite, write and mix descriptions, and re-air the shows, all in record time.

The channel cannot handle common occurrences like two described shows airing at the same time

An unintended – and insurmountable – deficiency in a segregated TV channel is the case of multiple described programs airing at once. The proposed channel has only one feed; how can it simulcast two described shows at once? It can’t, meaning that the actual amount of described programming available at that moment is less than the status quo, assuming no technical obstacles. Nor would tape-delaying the second program necessarily work; that isn’t equal access in the first place (sighted people didn’t have to wait to watch the show), and a later broadcast time might conflict with a scheduled show or a third program aired at that later time.

The station would permanently cap the available quantity of described programming

With exactly one feed of open-described programming ostensibly running 24 hours a day, that is the maximum coverage of described programming that could ever be offered – 24 program hours in a day. It won’t be very long before well more than a dozen stations in Canada have description requirements of (a paltry) two hours a week or more. A 24-hour day sounds like a lot, but in fact it isn’t, even when compared to the illegally inadequate amount of description required by the CRTC. It pales in comparison to a fully-accessible broadcast system.

The station would not really be “24-hour” for typical viewers

According to its own figures, blind viewers watch about 15 hours a week, or just over two hours a day. Most viewers would watch described TV in prime time. In essence, the existing system of multiple stations airing a range of described shows mostly in prime time results in more hours available to the viewer than the proposed channel, which has an absolute cap in practice.

The station will act as a filter of available programming

NBRS has shown no hesitation in deciding exactly what information blind people will have access to. That is the fundamental principle behind its monopoly radio reading service: They choose what articles to read and you don’t. It’s actually one of the hallmarks of the centralized-charity model, built as it is on dependence and domination. And it’s apparently a tough habit for NBRS to break, since its proposed channel removes freedom of choice from blind viewers and forces viewers tuned into the channel to watch whatever NBRS has decided to air. Even the existing illegally unequal system of a few described shows on several channels offers more freedom than NBRS’s proposal.

The station would be largely unavailable in one province

NBRS admits that only anglophone markets would carry the channel (and ding subscribers for the privilege). Not only does this mean that English-speaking subscribers in Quebec might be shut out (yet another inequality built into the proposal), it leaves open the ominous possibility of an application from la Magnétothèque to run its own French-language service.

NBRS’s proposed few hours a month of French-language programming are a drop in the bucket and an obvious sop to the francophone-dominated CRTC. That proposition can’t be taken seriously. Nor has NBRS provided evidence that it employes native-French-speaking writers and narrators. Nor are any sources of predescribed French programming given.

The applicants do not understand what captioning an open-described network would entail

The applicant at least understands that you can’t run a TV network these days without captioning. Kudos to NBRS for catching up to the late 20th century. However, it seems not to understand that a network that runs nothing but open-described shows has to have captioning that also captions the narrator’s words.

Dialogue must be captioned irrespective of source, save for rare exceptions like background clamour (one person on camera at a busy shopping mall, for example). You can’t caption just the main audio if there’s also a narrator talking. Can you caption The Simpsons if you leave Marge out? Can you caption a documentary without also captioning the narrator? Of course you can’t. If you’re a hard-of-hearing person watching the proposed channel, you know there’s another voice yammering away, and you have an absolute right to understand what that voice is saying.

As such, any new programming could be captioned only after description is finished. All precaptioned programs that air with open description actually won’t be “captioned” at all, since narrators’ utterances would not be rendered in any captioning created before the description track was. There is no practical way for the applicant to actually achieve full captioning on an open-described network. In fact, the channel would probably be out of compliance from day one.

Claimed public polling cherry-picked respondents and selectively reported results

As other intervenors will have explained, the focus-group sample did not include any significant number of blind people opposed to the centralized-charity model. As a proxy for that population, almost no members of the Alliance for the Equality of Blind Canadians received an invitation to a focus group, or even heard it was happening, according to statements made on its mailing list.

Focus-group results are underreported

The application notes that one-third of respondents were initially opposed to the idea. This is a rather telling statistic in the first place. But “[w]hen the full concept was explained to respondents, there was great enthusiasm” – but still one-third opposition, presumably. It was later stated that “the support for the new service was unanimous and very enthusiastic across all groups, markets[,] and participants.”

Here the application makes the explicit claim that 100% of respondents ultimately supported the proposal. But presumably the experimenters used a Likert scale to gauge degree of support or opposition (typically a five-point scale comprising strongly support, somewhat support, neutral, somewhat oppose, and strongly oppose). If so, the applicant has failed to fully report its findings. It strains credibility that all 136 respondents fully supported the channel.

Additionally, the report provides useless age ranges rather than each respondent’s actual age. “Almost three-quarters were employed,” a rather high number compared to visually-impaired people as a whole, adding further evidence to the conclusion that the polling group was unrepresentative.

Respondents spontaneously named AudioVision competitors as providing good-quality description

Respondents spontaneously named WGBH or WGBH-described shows – like The Simpsons three times – as being enjoyable or “excellent ‘described’ programs.” (Separately, “those great PBS shows” were mentioned. Most prime-time PBS shows with description are described by WGBH.) Another high-rated show was described by an AudioVision competitor. AudioVision was mentioned once, and in that case was placed second in line after WGBH.

NBRS’s own respondents typically failed to voice any confidence in the quality of its work.

(Blind Justice was incorrectly listed as a show that did not air with description in Canada. It did.)

NBRS participates in closed “research” projects

The application makes half-arsed commitments to “quality” of description here and there, but based on its own appendices, it is willing to source description from absolutely anywhere except its existing Canadian competitors. This hardly constitutes a quality standard under any guise.

In any event, there are no quality standards for description that were independently developed in an open process and tested for efficacy. AudioVision Canada’s distinctly ideological description process is certainly not a strong place to start, but in any event, NBRS fails to disclose its involvement with the so-called E-Inclusion program, which aims to write standards (euphemized as “guidelines”) for audio description.

The Stubbs report publicly admits that NBRS attended secret meetings held by the CBC to rewrite existing standards for audio-description icons and other matters. Those meetings were that rarest of things, a genuine secret cabal. These people are the last ones we should trust with any issue of “quality.”

An important blind organization opposes it

The Alliance for the Equality of Blind Canadians opposes the application and the centralized-charity model generally. Thus the application has significant opposition from blind people themselves.

The service is not for people with mobility impairments

Despite NBRS’s claims to the contrary, a channel running audio description 24/7 does not solve the accessibility needs of people with mobility impairments unless they also have a visual impairment, in which case the mobility impairment is irrelevant.

There is no discussion of monaural vs. stereo or 5.1 audio

SAP is a monaural channel recorded at low bitrates; typical audio description is single-channel. If every English-speaker in the country is expected to pay for this channel, why hasn’t NBRS assured us that all soundtracks will be full stereo or 5.1 audio? Does NBRS really expect us to pay for a station that airs 1970s-style monaural audio all day?

The application was partially or completely inaccessible

NBRS filed its application in untagged PDFs with extensive tables. Additional alternatives were available on its site as audio recordings, as text files with incorrect MIME types, and as unpublished file formats (like Microsoft Word). NBRS’s Web page had invalid HTML, but was at least a marginal improvement over its 1997-era Web skills.

If you can’t read an untagged PDF, or don’t have a certain proprietary word processor, or can’t hear, you can’t read some or all of the documentation. This organization hasn’t the slightest clue what accessible file formats are.

The CRTC’s process was inaccessible

The CRTC had to admit that its own processes were and are inaccessible to blind people and had to postpone the filing deadline, by an extremely generous single day. The CRTC’s entrenched inaccessibility will eventually result in an embarrassing human-rights complaint it will expensively lose.

The CRTC has a conflict of interest

Former CRTC chair Charles Dalfen delivered remarks at NBRS’s new headquarters, we are told. As such, the Commission has exposed a mild conflict of interest in favour of the applicant. I didn’t see Charles Dalfen at a reception to inaugurate Galaviz & Hauber’s new offices.


See also

Edited transcripts from NBRS’s and intervenors’ testimony before the CRTC (added 2007.04.04).

Homepage: Joe Clark Homepage: Joe Clark Media access (captioning, Web accessibility, etc.) Graphic and industrial design Journalism, articles, book