With no publicity I could find, in March 2000 the CBC in Canada ran a two-part Anne of Green Gables movie with “descriptive video.” All I could find was this press release on the CBC Web site (and note the baldfaced lie about CBC’s being the only broadcaster in the world using SAP and radio-reading-service technology):
CBC Television and AudioVision Canada breaking new ground in television programming for vision-restricted canadians
CBC Television will broadcast a described version of the highly anticipated mini-series Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie. The two-part, four-hour mini-series will air Sunday, March 5 and Monday, March 6 from 8 to 10 p.m. on CBC Television. AudioVision Canada created the special description for this long-awaited conclusion to the classic Canadian trilogy. Video description is a means of “turning up the picture” for people with impaired or diminished vision. A concise narration of the key visual elements of a film or television program is woven into the sound track in a way that complements the dialogue and sound effects. The added narration enables people with vision problems to follow what’s happening on the screen.
The described version of Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story will be available to most CBC viewers. In the greater Toronto area, the described version will be carried using the Second Audio Program (SAP) component of CBLT-TV’s stereo signal. Viewers with a stereo TV or VCR can receive the SAP component of the stereo TV signal. In addition, the described version will be carried nationally by VoicePrint, the audio news and information service delivered by satellite and cable to more than five million homes throughout Canada.
CBC Television is the only North American broadcaster to support this new technology by making a described version available. Description benefits over 1.5 million Canadians with impaired or diminished vision. AudioVision Canada and VoicePrint are divisions of the National Broadcast Reading Service Inc., a non-profit organization established in 1989 to make media more accessible for vision-restricted Canadians.
I only noticed there was A.D. of any kind because of a voice-over (possibly with a title card saying the same thing in print) at the outset of the second episode.
- AudioVision Canada, a shoestring operation trained by DVS, still has not grasped elementary principles of audio description and continues to employ undisciplined writers and over-excited narrators. About every four minutes – not an exaggeration – I heard another description that interpreted a character’s thoughts or emotional life well beyond what was clearly discernible visually. It’s quite fair to say that Anne searches frantically through a battle site, becauses he clearly is. It’s quite another thing to say her hopes are dashed. (That’s an approximate example.)
- A ship is seen steaming on a body of water. We’re told it’s bound for Canada. Who sez?
- “But Jack knows better.” This is after he’s shot by an assailant wearing a certain kind of hat. How did the producers of the program impart this telepathic knowledge onto film and videotape? I was not aware that the SAP channel could reveal the thoughts of a fictional character.
- Anne “struggles back her tears and fears.” Tears, yes. We can see that plainly. But fears? What if she is merely nervous? Who’s to know? Where is the visual evidence?
- “Swallows back her disappointment.” Actually, she merely swallows hard.
- “The [falling] debris has killed the priest.” Well, that’s the conclusion you drew. All I saw was Anne’s lifting up a few boards and finding the still body of the priest underneath. Anyone who’s ever watched E.R. or even Marcus Welby, M.D. knows that you’re not necessarily dead just because you are motionless and are not breathing.
- There’s an annoying habit of using the progressive aspect (Anne is helping Jack, Fred is walking across the field) which is the sort of thing your sighted friend might tell you if you asked “What’s she doing now?” but is the wrong aspect to use in professional description. Use the indicative aspect (Anne helps Jack, Fred walks across the field). In some cases, progressive aspect is called for: “A new day. Amanda is busy oiling her bicycle’s chain as Bill walks up the driveway, his suit jacket draped over his arm.” That works fine, and could be expressed in either aspect. But reserve the progressive aspect for special cases.
- Narrators tended to ignore the fact that one scene takes place at night and the next one in daylight. I did hear “A few days later” and similar inferences. What’s wrong with saying “Daytime” and leaving it at that? Without a calendar display, we don’t know how much time has passed. We do know that day follows night, and that is an important point to get across.
- A considerable reliance on ambiguous pronouns for long periods of description: they do this, she does that, he does this. Who are “they,” “she,” and “he”? Every now and then, using the characters’ actual names, or, if time permits, a descriptive phrase (“Anne hands the baby to Fred, standing stiffly by the door”) keeps everyone clear on who’s doing what. (The same advice holds for normal prose writing. I thought describers were good writers generally.)
- By far my most severe criticism must be reserved for the unprofessional narrator, Heather Gale (correct spelling unknown – the name was dictated, not written). I don’t like her voice, and I accept up front the response that it’s subjective. Fine. What’s also subjective but clearly out of place is her schmaltzy, over-the-top, and indeed hysterical, excitable, overzealous delivery. A certain degree of dispassion is required, while maintaining the kind of cadences that actually make your sentences understandable. Aladdin’s description by DVS used a bit of verve here and there (I sat in on the recording session: “The bee is Genie!” was pumped up a notch for an extra sense of wonderment), and maybe that’s viable in children’s programming. Certainly the descriptions on Arthur are more emotional than those on Mystery. But jeez, would you calm down, for heaven’s sake? Does every third sentence have to end in an exclamation point?
- Perhaps we can blame the writer, credited as Marco Sauren – again, spelling unknown. An AudioVision nabob told me several years ago that they saw A.D. as a viable work option for social-assistance recipients to earn pin money. Granted, many such people are articulate and well-educated, but irrespective of whether or not Marco is in that category, AudioVision seems to undervalue its most precious resource – writing skill.
- In fairness, half the time the descriptions were right on the money. But only half. That isn’t good enough. And, with the current AudioVision braintrust, I doubt things will ever improve. Audio description in Canada seems doomed to recapitulate the history of captioning in Canada: Doing it differently from Americans, but by no means better. Or even half as well, really.
Any Canadians who need description done ought to fork over the American dollars and hire DVS, Canadian content be damned.