Joe Clark: Media access

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Audio description
Talking Behind Their Backs: Controversies in audio description

Updated 2001.07.15

Talking Behind Their Backs

The new medium of audio description is opening up film and video to blind viewers, but are those viewers getting the message the director intended?

Note: This is actually an application for a grant (back in 1995!) to explore the issues described below. I received the grant, but never got to finish the study because the Descriptive Video Service would not coöperate. I provide the document for historical interest and to stimulate discussion of complexities of audio description.

Project description

The project is a magazine article examining controversies in audio description, a means of making theatre, film, video, and other visual media accessible to blind and visually-impaired viewers. In audio description, a special narrator makes use of natural pauses in dialogue to verbally describe details that might not be apparent to a blind viewer by audio alone – action, wardrobe, facial expressions, settings, titles, and other visual information. Audio description is relatively common on PBS TV shows, on old movies on some networks, and on a small number of Hollywood movies in a special home-video line. Description-writers ("describers") work under tremendous constraints: Using only the pauses available in a film, the writer has to effectively encapsulate a wide range of visual details. In a great many cases, exactly which details to describe or ignore is a judgement call. Since audio description, like captioning, occurs outside the purview of the director and screenwriter, describers have broad powers to influence a blind viewer’s understanding of a film or video piece.

The article will examine such controversial topics as race and sexuality in audio description, analyzing the philosophy and practical considerations underlying a describer’s choice of what to describe. Who decides which details will warrant mention? Who decides how those details will be described? To what extent do descriptions diverge from the intent of the director and screenwriter, and what efforts, if any, are being made to include directors and screenwriters in the audio-description process? Indeed, are there good reasons to exclude directors and screenwriters?


Audio description everywhere is still in its infancy. Joel Snyder, a veteran audio-describer, has documented the history of the still-new medium of audio description. In 1985, Barry Cronin at WGBH, the Boston PBS Überstation whose Caption Center had been churning out generally high-quality captions for a decade, was part of a task force researching the use of the Second Audio Program channel of stereo television; Cronin wondered if SAP could be used to describe the visual images of television for people who are blind. He began to research the issue by contacting several organizations which provide services for blind people and discovered that Cody and Margaret Pfanstiehl were developing audio description for live theatre in Washington, D.C. (The Pfanstiehls now run an audio-description and training service called the Washington Ear.)

With the Pfanstiehls’ training and the financial help of U.S. Department of Education, WGBH inaugurated its Descriptive Video Service (DVS) in 1990. DVS has produced audio descriptions for big-name PBS programs like Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery, Nature, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. (DVS descriptions for broadcast TV are inaudible unless you use a stereo TV or VCR set to Second Audio Program. The PBS station in question also has to be capable of broadcasting in stereo, and the cable company, if any, needs to pass the stereo signal through unmolested. Not all those conditions apply everywhere; in Toronto, for example, broadcast DVS is not available.) DVS also offers a home-video line of DVS-described movies (various flavours of Star Trek, The Joy Luck Club, Forrest Gump, and the like, with always-audible descriptions), all produced mainly with U.S. Department of Education funding.

In Oklahoma, the Narrative Television Network produces audio-described old movies (whose rights are relatively easy to obtain) for a U.S. cable channel; one NTN-described movie per month is also broadcast on the Family Channel in Canada, with descriptions always audible. The Royal National Institute for the Blind in England has described a handful of feature films. AudioVision Canada, a sibling of the VoicePrint radio reading service, has begun describing an extremely limited number of films for Canadian TV.

In coming years, audio description may grow more prominent on broadcast TV in the U.S., where the Federal Communications Commission is currently seeking public comment on captioning and audio description and where "both the Senate and the House of Representatives have passed bills, which, if enacted, would require the Commission to adopt regulations to ensure that video programming is accessible to persons with hearing disabilities through the provision of closed captioning, including requiring `video programming providers or owners’ to maximize the accessibility of previously published or exhibited programs by adding closed captioning.... The House bill would require the Commission to conduct an inquiry into the current extent of closed captioning as well as other issues.... The House bill further provides that the Commission ’may adopt regulation it deems necessary to promote the accessibility of video programming to persons with visual impairments."

Controversies in audio description: Examples

Directorial involvement

Captioning and audio description are unusual postproduction processes in that directors and screenwriters rarely, if ever, have any say at all in how their films are captioned and described. Presumably screenwriters and directors would have an interest in how their scripts are edited and laid out by captioners, and presumably they would care about exactly which details are pointed up in audio description and how, but directors and screenwriters are only rarely involved in either process. (Woody Allen is said to require a printout of caption text before the final encoding process to create a captioned master, but that story may be apocryphal.)

Schindler’s List, however, is a unique case of audio description. Steven Spielberg personally selected the narrator, Dave Gilbert; MCA/ Universal and Spielberg’s production company, Amblin, paid for the description. This was a first: No other film had its DVS description paid by a studio, even though that has been standard practice in captioning for a decade. (Major studios, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, earlier successfully fought off a lawsuit that would have compelled studios to release described films, arguing that such a requirement would compel a studio to produce a certain form of speech, which the court agreed was contrary to the U.S. constitution. The American film industry, one can infer, is not exactly in love with the audio-description concept.)

Moreover, Krienke and other DVS staff were required to meet with Amblin executives to clear the description script. It is more than conceivable that Amblin exercised artistic control of the script, perhaps even shaping the direction of the script in hot-button passages like those quoted above. Is this a harbinger of the future? Can we imagine directors and screenwriters vetoing audio-description scripts – possibly without understanding the requirements of the medium and without respecting the professionalism and experience of veteran describers like DVS?

Only two other cases of directorial involvement in description are known, and even they are tenuous. Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson has reportedly watched the DVS version and approved of the work post facto. DVS sent Kenneth Branagh a copy of its described version of Henry V and received a bland letter back from a functionary thanking DVS for doing so.

Given that description-writers have such broad powers to influence a blind viewer’s appreciation of a film, and given that current copyright laws clearly permit a copyright holder to control the creation of derivative works (like a DVS version of a film), what are the implications for the future of audio description? Will there be more cases of tight director/studio involvement à la Schindler’s List, or will describers continue to be able to talk behind directors’ backs? The proposed article would address these questions in detail, discussing the issues with a broad range of describers for various firms and with the studios responsible for the DVS line of described home videos. An attempt would be made to interview directors and screenwriters on the topic. The article would use as its base the entire DVS home-video library as well as other described material available, like PBS series and AudioVision Canada-described movies.

Further controversies in audio description

The article would not overlook the ongoing work of Jaclyn Parker of the American Foundation for the Blind, who is studying controversies in audio description under a U.S. Department of Education grant. Topics under Parker’s purview include "whether or not to describe attractiveness; how to deal with the issue of race – to mention or not to mention; what to do with clear inconsistencies in a play or movie that might become even more noticeable with description."

In addition, some other lower-level controversies in description will be briefly examined, though they may not be substantial enough to make the cut in the final article: