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Audio description
Audio description vs. play-by-play commentary on live TV

Updated 2001.10.15

Audio description vs. play-by-play commentary on live TV

SUMMARY – Play-by-play commentary on live TV is notably different from audio description on live TV. Looking at one example of live audio description, we can spot a few significant differences in assumptions and approach. Moral of the story? Play-by-play commentary is not interchangeable with audio description and lacks many features needed by blind and visually-impaired viewers.

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Anyone who’s watched live news or sporting events on TV knows that commentators provide narration of the events happening on the program. The audience for the commentary is assumed to be sighted: Everyone works from the premise that a viewer at home is watching the program and following the commentary simultaneously. Commentary is so important that long periods of silence are rare, and live closed-captioning is used to render the commentary for deaf viewers (and other captioning users).

In audio description, a narrator explains visible details that would not be obvious to a blind or visually-impaired viewers who cannot see the screen (or can’t see it very well). Audio description is superficially similar to “regular” commentary: Both involve narrators, and both tell you what’s happening during the program.

However, just as captions and subtitles are deceptively similar but not interchangeable, we have evidence to show that commentary and audio description aren’t interchangeable, either. This means, among other things, that live television shows should not be exempt from audio description; regular commentary does not do the same job as audio description. This page will look at regular commentary vs. audio description on a live TV show.


First, some terminology. There are quite a few different terms used for “regular” commentary, many of which come from sports:

Here I’ll use the generic term commentary, which could refer to any of those variations, particularly in the discussion of sports later on.

Live news description

The last three U.S. presidential inaugurations have been described live on PBS. I missed the two Clinton inaugurations, but I have a videotape of George W. Bush’s inauguration on 20 January 2001. (Thanks, Joel Snyder!) That program, hosted by Jim Lehrer, featured live audio description by the Descriptive Video Service at WGBH, which had described the other two inaugurations. (Lehrer mentioned on-air that the show was captioned and described, a nice plug.)

(News update, 2002.01.24: Two other examples of live description are known – the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon of 2001.09.21 and a tennis tournament in December 2000.)

In the two-hour telecast, we enjoyed main commentary by Lehrer and a cohost, plus commentary by the usual cadre of invited experts and talking heads. As is standard practice, the descriptions were broadcast on Second Audio Program; you had to set your TV or VCR to SAP to hear the descriptions (assuming your PBS station broadcast them).

However, it was not always possible to deliver descriptions during pauses in the other dialogue, as is usually done with prerecorded description. For one thing, the regular commentators rarely shut up, and for another, it was evidently more important to make the program accessible than to preserve every word of the main program commentary.


At the outset of the show, we heard a description explaining that the program was described by DVS and identifying the describers. Usually, in prerecorded description, the writer of the descriptions (the “describer”) and the narrator are two separate people. (In theatrical description, that is rare – the describer and narrator are usually the same person.) Because this was a live event, the describers also did their own narration. There were two producers of the event who did not narrate.

John Tracy did most of the talking. In the 120-minute program, we heard at least this many descriptions:

(Note: My count may be somewhat low. I defined a break between descriptions loosely – more than a few seconds of no descriptions ticked the counter over by one. Sometimes the describers caught their breath for a beat and kept on talking, which I counted as one description. Most boundaries between descriptions were unambiguous.)

The numbers boil down to 1.4 descriptions a minute. The average is somewhat skewed, however: During two long periods of talking-head interviews and during Bush’s inauguration speech (about a half-hour in total), there were a total of two descriptions. A more accurate average, then, is 1.8 descriptions a minute. Clearly, describers were doing a lot of work.

Just what do the describers talk about?

If the commentators are telling us all about the program, just what extra information are the describers giving us?

Well, let’s imagine a hockey game.

Examples of descriptions

In the inauguration show, here are some descriptions that weren’t even remotely duplicated by any of the regular commentators.

  1. The entire kiss-kiss, gladhanding business of schmoozing is described on many occasions. However, several cases of hubbub, confusion, and people shuffling about on podia were overlooked.
  2. Much description of wardrobe (and some of personal appearance).
    1. Gore and Cheney: “They both wear dark navy-blue suits with red ties.”
    2. Dick Cheney is described thus: “Cheney has a balding head with white hair at his temples and back. He wears glasses, has broad shoulders, and wears a large trench coat.” George W. Bush “has a heavy brow, short greying hair, and thin lips.”
    3. Clothing is well-described. Laura Bush’s “peacock-blue” coat is mentioned three times (though actually it is sky blue or robin’s-egg blue). It’s a rainy day, and the disposable clear “raincoats,” “slickers,” or “ponchos” worn by dozens of people are mentioned four times in total. We also hear about Tipper Gore’s outfit, Hillary Clinton’s “full-length leather coat” (it’s also black), plus the various suits and ties of presidents and vice-presidents, present-day and elected.
    4. Hairstyles get a lot of attention on males and females. Jenna and Barbara Bush (the daughters) have their hairdos described, though we miss the fact that Barbara fidgets with her coat. Hillary Clinton’s hair is mentioned, but not her general appearance. Chelsea Clinton’s, Lynn Cheney’s, and Laura Bush’s hair are all mentioned.
    5. It would often be considered sexist to describe the personal appearance of women in public life on a news broadcast. However, that presumes the viewer can observe the women’s appearance in the first place. Blind and visually-impaired viewers require greater information. Moreover, the audio describers talked about the appearance of men as well as women (not as much, but there are only so many ways to vary the phrase “dark business suit”).
  3. “Those already seated stand, clapping. Bush shakes their hands.”
  4. Regular commentators assume everyone knows what Washington landmarks look like. Audio describers do not: “A wide aerial view of the Capitol building shows the neoclassical white structure, with an elegant dome, shrouded by mist.” And, later: “The elegant building, shrouded in misty cloud.” This, admittedly, doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the features of the Capitol Building (what does “neoclassical” mean?), but the attempt was made.
  5. “We can just glimpse, through the dimly-lit room, President Clinton and President-Elect Bush talking together.” Such a detail would be considered too tediously self-evident to a regular commentator.
  6. A choir is described: “A distinguished grey-haired man conducts them from the front, wearing a dark overcoat.”
  7. The presidential motorcade is merely described as a presidential motorcade by the regular commentators. A describer notes “a large black SUV” in the motorcade. (Actually, it’s a Suburban. Maybe we should have mentioned that all the other vehicles are black limousines or police cars.)
  8. “Now the presidential limo slows to a stop. Men wait by the doors.”
  9. The funder credits at show opening and closing (miniature video commercials) were described, and onscreen slogans were read (“ADM: Supermarket to the world”).

Anticipating and following

So now we know that describers mention visual details that commentators ignore completely. This should not be a surprise; describers are supposed to tell us what’s visible.

Some other phenomena were noticeable during the inauguration show:

Errors and faux pas

Over the long term, anyone doing live commentary of any sort is going to make a few flubs. They’re no big deal. In fact, getting all nervous about making flubs is the sort of thing that tends to cause flubs.

We heard quite a few small errors in the inauguration descriptions.

  1. “American flags and flags with the presidential seal flutter on the roofs... actually, on the hoods of the presidential limousines.” Nope: The fenders, though most people couldn’t tell you what the fender of a car is. (The bumper?) It might have been easier to say “on the sides.”
  2. Former President Jimmy Carter was present with his wife, Rosalyn, whose name is correctly pronounced Rose-a-lynn but was articulated as Rahz-a-lynn by the describer (who sounds too young to remember the Carter administration).
  3. “Lynn Cheney wears a sea... pale-green long coat with covered buttons and a... fake-fur collar.” I think the phrase we are grasping for here is “sea-foam green.” It was probably a fur collar, but we couldn’t know.
  4. “They descend down the carpeted... blue-carpeted steps.”
  5. “George Bush and Vice-President Gore stand at the top of the stairs to the platform. Correction: That’s President Clinton and Al Gore.”
  6. “The drizzling... lightly-drizzling rain.”
  7. We’re told that George W. Bush hugs his wife and daughters, but they don’t mention that he pecks his daughters on the cheek, too.
  8. “They leave the circular statued hall, and leave the hallway.” Whoops. The hall is straight. There are circular pillars.
  9. We are told that, in the audience, “men watch patiently.” Most people seated are male/female couples. Judging by the colourfulness of their formal clothes, these are the closest thing to civilians we would see that day, unlike the many “dignitaries” mentioned by describers.
  10. “They descend up to the first platform, first tier of the steps.” Whoopsy!

Miscellaneous issues

There are sources of confusion that could have been cleared up by both the describers and the commentators. We had three people named Clinton, six named Bush, two named George Bush, two named Barbara Bush, two Cheneys, and two Gores. Referring to people by surname was hopelessly confusing half the time. DVS did use full names occasionally, but even that wasn’t always clear (which Barbara Bush?).

I have previously published a thinkpiece on the issue of identifying races of people in audio description, among other complexities. (I’m told I’m something of a philosopher when it comes to these issues.) The only black speaker at the inauguration (indeed, the only non-white speaker) was Rev. Kirbyjohn Caldwell, who was not identified as such. The assumption is that everyone was white. (There were many security guards and other staff who were black. Members of the choir were of many races.)

During one segment of the talking heads, onscreen titles identifying the unseen speakers were read (“Voice of Mark Shields”). They were, however, quite hard to understand. (This sort of quick speaker ID is done all the time in, for example, prerecorded documentaries.)

Lessons to learn

Clearly, commentary (or play-by-play) and audio description work from different precepts.

This will have important ramifications in Canada. Two digital specialty channels recently licensed (see my analysis), the Women’s Sports Network and Réseau Info Sport, have committed to provide 100 hours of audio description a year. Nonetheless, the Women’s Sports Network license application attempts to put forth the claim that play-by-play is equivalent to audio description.

The Women’s Sports Network (WSN) is unique to other programming genres with regard to its ability to provide descriptive video. By the very nature of live event sports programming, which engages both play-by-play commentary, as well as expert analysis, much of WSN’s programming will be readily accessible to the visually impaired upon launch of the service. All live sports events on the service will include commentary and analysis on the action.

It simply is not true that play-by-play is sufficient to make a program accessible to blind and visually-impaired persons. The example of the Bush inauguration alone – with 165 descriptions over a two-hour period, nearly all of which describe visual details not mentioned at all by the commentators – proves that we need both.

It’s quite possible to improve the accessibility of regular commentary through training, but in the real world, commentators will not stick with the nouvelle régime and will fall back on decades of practice, delivering commentary optimized for sighted people. And at any rate, adding a few audio-description-like annotations does not constitute access.

Live audio description of the sort found in the inauguration telecast has very rarely been attempted. (Live description based on written notes is the norm in theatrical description and is not at all the same thing.) We need more experience with and training for this novel accessibility technique.

This should not, however, be interpreted as a reason not to do it. (Think of the Motion Picture Association of America’s decades-long claims to be “studying” captioning of first-run films.) The only way to accumulate experience with live description is to do it. Perhaps the two Canadian networks can lead the world in producing very-high-quality live audio descriptions.