Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Invervention in the license-renewal application of CTV

Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2001-3

I support CTV’s license renewal with reservations.

CTV must be held to substantially higher quality standards in the field of captioning than have been tolerated over the last two decades. Moreover, both CTV and the Commission are set to recapitulate every mistake in the development of Canadian captioning in the much-delayed arrival of audio description to Canadian television.

Broadcaster-supported monopoly

CTV’s parent, BCE, paid $2 million to the National Broadcast Reading Service as part of the putative social benefits of the acquisition of CTV. The National Broadcast Reading Service, the monopoly provider of audio description in Canada, is now a de facto BCE subsidiary and is beholden to CTV and BCE. NBRS will do whatever CTV and BCE want. NBRS, sweepingly incapable of actually doing a good job with audio description and of selling its services to Canadian broadcasters, would quite deservedly have gone bankrupt by now without this artificial cash infusion.

As I have proven elsewhere, NBRS produces infuriatingly substandard, slipshod, incomprehensible, overblown, unprofessional work that meets none of the standards in place in audio description on U.S. television. NBRS’s work is an unfettered travesty and a disgrace to Canadian broadcasting. It does grave disservice to blind and visually-impaired Canadians and other audio-description viewers.

The license-renewal hearing must discuss the serious and pressing issue of NBRS’s manifest incompetence and CTV’s commitment to hire their services for at least 400 hours of described programming. In short, an inept monopolist has $2 million in the bank and a guaranteed market of television programs to desecrate.

Is this what any sane viewer of audio description really wants? Of course, it is indeed what CTV and NBRS seek. The CRTC surely has every intention of rubber-stamping CTV’s requests; that’s exactly what the Commission did by swallowing wholesale the captioning and audio-description plans of licensed Category 1 digital broadcasters. (See my analysis.)

Pervasive CRTC ignorance

The CRTC, moreover, remains culpably ignorant of even the basics of accessible media even after nearly twenty years of claiming to regulate it. Intervenors have had to explain the various forms of captioning to CRTC commissioners in the past. It is quite apparent that, apart from thoroughgoing ignorance of popular culture (CRTC commissioners clearly do not even watch TV), the Commission understands access techniques like captioning and audio description as mere words in license documents. (And the CRTC can’t even get the words right half the time.)

The current license renewal proves the CRTC has learned nothing about audio description, thereby rounding out its consistent unbroken streak of rank ignorance of all aspects of accessible media.

To consider the questions in the Public Notice:

Are the applicants taking sufficient steps to provide audio descriptions of their programming (i.e., the voice-over of a program’s textual, graphic and still image elements, such as phone numbers and weather maps that are posted on the screen)?

It is exasperating in the extreme to note that the Commission still does not understand what audio description is. The actions described above are part of audio description (only a small part, at that) but do not equate to audio description. It gets worse.

Have the applicants made progress in working with the National Broadcast Reading Service (NBRS) to implement described video programming (i.e., the voice-over description of a program’s key motion video elements, such as the activities carried out on screen) to serve the visually impaired, as encouraged in the TV Policy?

Here the CRTC appears to endorse a perpetual monopoly in the provision of audio description on Canadian television, citing by name a specific provider of the service. I do not recall the name-dropping of a specific captioning company in any previous CRTC hearing notice. Evidently the Commission has shed any artifice of impartiality and has decided to officially endorse the presence, role, dominance, and even the deplorable work of NBRS.

To make another important point clear: The Commission and the broadcasters it pretends to regulate still have not learned that there is one and only one generic term for audio description, and that is audio description. There is no such thing as “described video,” and moreover “Descriptive Video” is a registered servicemark of the Descriptive Video Service in the United States.

Also, the question is framed so vaguely that any kind of “progress” would meet the requirement, like a few meetings here and there, or perhaps the handing over of a $2 million cheque. The question is insubstantive and betrays the Commission’s evident intent to continue its refusal to impose quantity and quality requirements for audio description on Canadian television.

If the Commission were to impose quantitative requirements for described video programming, what should those requirements be?

Such requirements were detailed in my analysis of captioning and audio description on new specialty channels:

  1. Basic access to the majority of the network’s programming. This means most shows have to feature captioning and audio description – that’s most shows for all the years of the license, including Year One.
  2. Consistent with the CRTC’s 1995 requirements, by the end of the seven-year license term 90% of programming should be captioned and described....
  3. A level of quality that meets or exceeds U.S. standards, and certainly exceeds prevailing standards in Canadian analogue TV. In particular, captions must be as well-written, well-edited, well-timed, and well-placed as leading U.S. captions, and audio descriptions can be no worse than those provided by the Descriptive Video Service at WGBH.

Regulatory ineptitude and timidity

The argument that audio description costs too much is rendered false by Canadian broadcasters’ miraculous ability to find the money for new specialty channels. If accessibility is too expensive, how are these impoverished, struggling, downtrodden broadcasters managing to get away with starting up entire new television networks?

It’s really very simple. Existing networks must be fully accessible before new networks should be licensed. If the CRTC, in its role as inveterate booster of Canadian for-profit broadcasters, nonetheless believes that even more channels are supportable, then presumably they must also be supportable if their programming were accessible.

Or is the Commission finally willing to admit that its role as regulator exists in name only, that it approves essentially all significant requests from for-profit broadcasters without guaranteed accessibility, that it lacks any understanding whatsoever of captioning and audio description, and therefore does not know what it is doing in regulating accessibility on Canadian television?

CTV’s license should be renewed, with strict, enforceable standards for quantity and quality of captioning and audio description. The issue of enforcement is admittedly a cruel joke when it comes to the CRTC, which has never enacted penalties for failing to meet the often trivial and begrudging accessibility requirements it has occasionally bothered to impose on broadcasters; nor is there any evidence whatsoever that the Commission even monitors performance when it comes to television accessibility.

The CRTC never bothers to hear a range of voices on accessibility on Canadian television in its public hearings. It is necessary for me to testify in person to counter the blandishments, misconstructions, misdirections, and half-truths that the National Broadcast Reading Service and its de facto corporate parent CTV will provide at the hearing.

If the Commision is genuinely interested in exploring accessibility issues, the Commission cannot limit itself to hearing testimony by a broadcaster and the monopolist audio-description supplier in its pocket. A refusal to hear oral arguments from me and other interested parties will provide clear proof that the Commission has made up its mind already on the topic of audio description (based, as I have proven, on shocking ignorance) and is set to repeat history by rubber-stamping whatever the applicant proposes.

Further reading

Readers interested in media access should read my online resources, available at, developed over twenty years of study, writing, criticism, and testimony.

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Updated 2001.07.15

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