Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Oral intervention in the CTV license renewal

Apart from my written intervention in the CRTC license renewal of the CTV television network, I made an oral presentation by superswanky teleconference (that is, speakerphone) on 2001.04.23. The transcript, complete with transcription errors, is provided below. (It is part of a 300 K document located here.)

Be sure to take part in poll at the end of the page: “Just how much do I sound like crazed, feverish Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory?”

I’m pleased to intervene in the matter of the CTV license renewals specifically on the topic of media access and in particular audio description. Let me give you some background about myself.

I go back over 20 years in the field of media access. Back when I was a teenager I started watching caption television, this was well before closed captioning was invented, and I have stuck with it ever since.

I have written over a dozen articles on captioning and audio description. I was a working journalist for ten years with over 390 published articles. Gave an early paper back in 1989 about captioning requirements for high definition television. I briefed a Parliamentary sub-committee on the Broadcasting Act, which now regulates the CRTC as a matter of fact. I run the media access mailing list on the internet, which you can find if you go on line at Many of my links are available there.

I have signed a contract with New Riders Publishing, and I am writing a book on the topic of web accessibility, to be called "Building Accessible Websites," and that is coming out in October 2001. I have sufficient renown or infamy that a journalist is writing a profile on me for the Atlantic Monthly, to be called “The King of Closed Captions,” and that is scheduled for the July 2001 issue.

If there is anyone in Canada who knows more about accessible media, I haven’t met that person.

Now, I have got a couple of things to say about the topic of audio description in general. First I would like to commend CTV for having the guts to be the first Canadian broadcaster to actually commit to do some audio description. I should really credit BCE because the first inkling we had that there would be some commit to real audio description was with the category 1 digital speciality channels, Réseau Info Sport and the Women’s Sport Network which are now BCE properties committed to a hundred hours a year, I believe, of audio descriptions.

So we knew that good things were coming down the pipe. There was also the two million dollar contribution to Audiovision Canada which gives them the base funding for five years.

So I am actually pleased to see that CTV has committed to, in the fullness of time by their end of their license term, two new hours of Canadian described programming a week and two hours of repeats. That should actually be upgraded to four new hours of Canadian programming. It should be on a par with the Americans. It is a bit of chintzy, I think, to put through your license commitments for accessibility through the back door of repeats.

Now, let’s talk about audio description in general.

First, a very important procedural note. The CRTC broadcasters and intervenors have been making a serious mistake for the last two years in consistently referring to audio description as descriptive video service or descriptive video. Those are not generic terms. The descriptive video service is a unit of the WGBH Educational Foundation. They do audio description through offices in Boston and Los Angeles. Descriptive video service and DVS are registered service marks of the WGBH Educational Foundation.

You have no more right to refer to audio description in general has DVS or descriptive video, than you do to refer to tissues as Kleenex. Everyone may do it. The fact remains that in this particular issue DVS may have become synonymous with audio description because they do more of it than anyone else in the world, but DVS and descriptive video are not generic terms per se.

So it’s important for the Commission and the Commission broadcasters and all intervenors to start referring to audio description by its true generic term, which is audio description.

Now, the FCC has unfortunately muddied the waters a bit by introducing the term video description into the legislative record in the United States. We have to live with that synonym now being on the books, but it is not the case that DVS and descriptive video or descriptive video service are generic terms for audio description. So from this point forward, now that the CRTC really knows that they have been doing something wrong, I hope that all future documents and discussions can refer to audio description and not DVS or descriptive video programming.

Moving right along, I wonder – it strikes me as odd that after nearly 20 years of closed captioning, the CTRC seems so eager to recapitulate the mistakes it made with the introduction of closed captioning, now with the introduction of audio description. The Commission seems to be treating audio description as some kind of new technological or medical breakthrough that gets written up in a medical journal, and something we are cautioned that will not have widespread applicability for five to ten years.

In reality, audio description on North American programming has been a fixture since 1988 which is when the first tests were run, what would then become the descriptive video service of WGBH. It’s a regular feature of broadcast television over the air, cable, speciality channels since 1990. It is very late in the day for the Commission even to pretend that audio description is a new concept that is only now being applicable to the Canadian broadcasting system.

In fact, broadcasters in Canada have been remiss for the last ten years in not providing any substantial amounts of audio described programming. I think it is incumbent on the CRTC to acknowledge its own failings in this regard.

Now, the Commission is not renowned for being completely up to speed on popular culture or what is actually on television. I really get the impression that the CRTC Commissioners and staff don’t watch a lot of TV and don’t know what is going on. Certainly we could not possibly have gotten that impression from the recent Bell ExpressVu porn channel problem.

Now, it would be nice if the Commission could acknowledge that audio description has been going on every day of the week with no particular problems for ten years in the United States and that it is coming to the party rather embarrassingly late about this. Moreover, the Commission blew it in a very substantial way with the category 1 digital specialty channels licenses. Pretty much whatever the applicants proposed for captioning and audio description, both, were particularly rubber-stamped by the Commission.

In fact I spent several weeks going over the commitments for our broadcasters and the requirements by the CRTC when it comes to captioning and audio description. I collated all that information and put it into a big table which is available on my website at; you will find the link there. I found out no matter what the broadcasters proposed for captioning and audio description it was simply approved.

If, for example, a broadcaster promised to do ten per cent captioning the first year, that was accepted. If a different broadcaster promised to do a hundred per cent captioning the first year, that was also accepted. If a broadcaster pledged to do no audio description whatsoever because they had no plans, as for example most of the French language broadcasters said, we have no plans in this area, short and sweet for them, then that was accepted.

If, however, in the two cases mentioned before, the Réseau Info Sport and Women’s Sports Network, the broadcaster did actually have the courage to say that we would commit to audio scheduling. That too was accepted.

Now, the Commission has not been in the forefront of requiring accessibility to the broadcasting service. We have heard complaints for years, I mean since day zero of captioning that accessibility is too expensive. In fact, in the Broadcasting Act broadcasters are required to provide services for disabled audiences where funding permits. I’m just paraphrasing the Act. You all know what it actually says.

Isn’t it a funny thing though that broadcasters have consistently said for almost 20 years that accessibility cost them too much money but they always managed to find the funds to start new digital specialty channels and new analogue channels. Isn’t it a funny thing that CTV claimed for years that captioning cost a lot of money, but later they started satellite networks like the Comedy Network and Outdoor Life Network in which they have a full ownership or partial.

It’s a very strange thing. I mean we get this from all the broadcast conglomerates in Canada, CHUM Ltd., Chorus, all of them. They will all complain that some kind of accessibility whether it is captioning or audio description costs too much money, but they always manage to find the money to put together even just the applications for dozens of broadcasting channels, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars just to complete.

So the claim by broadcasters that it doesn’t – that it costs too much money to provide accessibility is clearly false. The Commission has been complicit with broadcasters in perpetuating the lie that accessibility is too expensive for the Canadian broadcasting system. If that were really true, we wouldn’t have so many dozens of Canadian speciality channels because the broadcasters wouldn’t have been able to afford them. If they can’t afford to make existing television channels accessible, how can they afford to start up new channels.

Besides it has hardly been stated by what is currently the monopoly provider of audio description in Canada, Audiovision Canada, that they do description for about $2,500 per broadcast hour.

Now, if we are doing four original hours a week, that is about $10,000 a week, which is half a million dollars a year. Now I am sure it cost CTV more than to schlep 20 people to Ottawa for these hearings. It cost – I mean the cost to produce audio description are a drop in the bucket. It’s true that the technical infrastructure costs are substantially more expensive but it is not as thought a large corporation like CTV owned by an enormous conglomerate like BCE can’t actually afford that expenditure.

Moving right along, it seems that since audio description has been on North American television since 1988 but we are only now talking about having a commitment to regularly scheduled audio description in Canada, by the end of the broadcast term, the license term that we are discussing now for CTV, seven years from now, that will be about 2008, at that point a whole 20 years will have passed since the introduction of audio description on Canadian television and its reasonably widespread use on the regularly scheduled airways in Canada.

Now, if you are a deaf or hard of hearing person who had to wait 20 years for captioning or a blind or visually impaired person who had to wait 20 years for audio description, even though you were paying the same rates for your cable television and for your specialty channels as everyone else, would you think that there might be something amiss with this. Can you say lost generation?

Why is it exactly that – since we are now getting our act together and doing much more captioning in Canada, even though the quality – it just isn’t there at present for pre-recorded programming, we are still expecting blind and visually impaired people to have waited 20 years since it was introduced on American television before we get regularly scheduled amounts of audio description on Canadian TV.

Now, could it possibly be that not only have the Canadian broadcasters tried to pull the wool over our eyes and claim that they have not been able to afford audio description or captioning, for that matter, over the last 20 years, but the CRTC has actually gone along with this and sort of covered it up and found much more interesting things to talk about it.

Oh, I don’t know. I seem to recall the license renewal for Much Music, what two or three cycles ago, which spent five or six pages discussing whether the program Ren and Stimpy was properly categorized, was a musical program. It didn’t even mention captioning even though I intervened on that specific topic.

I think the performance of the CRTC is quite poor in this regard given that it is commendable for CTV to put its money where its mouth is and finally commit to providing audio description in large measure on Canadian television. It isn’t sufficient. We need more – we need conditions of license for all broadcasters from now going forward into the future is make sure that the people – that blind and visionally impaired Canadians who are paying the same amount for television services as non-disabled Canadians at least have access to that resource.

I would be pleased to answer questions at this point.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Clark, for your presentation. I don’t think we have any questions, but I would just note, if you have been following the discussion over last week between the Commission and CTV and Global, that they have both agreed to move on this issue. I think that the question about too expensive has been taken off the table and that both groups have agreed to proceed.

Notwithstanding that, we certainly appreciate your presentation and your support of us moving on this audio description issue, and we will try to be more mindful of using the correct term as we go forward.

Thank you for your presentation.

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Updated 2002.07.26

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