Joe Clark: Media access

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CTV, the CRTC, and audio description → CRTC set to blow it again on disabled access

Updated 2001.07.15

CRTC set to blow it again on disabled access

Note: The following op-ed article appeared in the 20 September 2000 issue of the Toronto Star. An annotated version with links follows. One readily imagines blood funnelling from the ears of outraged broadcasters. The gig is up, kids. My predictions were borne out, as I have documented elsewhere.

The airwaves are public property, but even now neither the CRTC nor TV networks seems to accept the fact that “public” means “everybody.” Case in point: Access technologies for disabled viewers on new stations.

Presently, the CRTC is holding extensive hearings for licenses for new TV networks for digital distribution. The TV networks the CRTC authorizes will have to be carried by digital distributors, and if you want them, in nearly all cases you’ll have to pay a monthly fee.

But what if you can’t hear? Or can’t see? You’re paying the same fee as everyone else. Shouldn’t you have equal access to these fancy new TV channels?

You’ve probably heard of closed captioning, the most widespread access technique used in broadcasting today. Captions, intended for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, are hidden titles written in the same language as the audio. Captioning has been part of Canadian TV since 1980[1] (lagging behind the U.S.), but the CRTC didn’t put meaningful requirements into place until 1995, and even then with suspicious exemptions[2]. (Most TVs come with caption decoders as standard features. Try watching captioned TV for two solid weeks; you’ll never go back.)

Then there’s audio description, an access technique for blind and visually-impaired viewers. Reading from a carefully-honed script, a human narrator succinctly describes out loud those visual details, not evident from the soundtrack itself, that are needed to understand and enjoy a broadcast.

Audio description has been part of U.S. television since 1988, but has barely been attempted in Canada. Some PBS programs viewable in Toronto run with descriptions, done by the estimable Descriptive Video Service (DVS). You need a stereo TV or VCR to hear the descriptions. (The Toronto Public Library stocks videos with always-audible descriptions; check the rather unfortunate subject heading “Video recordings for the visually handicapped.”)

Fast-forward to September 2000, and the CRTC is once again set to swallow whole the excuses, prevarications, and pleas of poverty of richly profitable TV networks, which always seem to scrounge up the money for, say, film-festival shmooze parties or news helicopters – or entire new digital TV networks – but suddenly find themselves cash-strapped when it comes to making their programming fully accessible to the audience that’s already paying for it.

The networks get away with snowing the CRTC because CRTC commissioners exceed even the broadcasters themselves in their ignorance of accessibility. At the hearings, the CRTC wastes everyone’s time by asking each applicant if their services will be technically equipped to carry audio description. They all will by definition, because digital TV can handle multiple audio tracks.

One applicant, VitalTV, suggests it will air descriptions on shows “dealing with health issues that directly affect the visually-impaired.” U.S. surveys conclusively show that blind viewers have the same programming tastes as their sighted counterparts. Separate is not equal.

A commissioner hearing that application put up mild protest, but the CRTC can be relied on to follow through on its decades-long history of buying every broadcaster excuse. In its application for Q! Queer Television (zip file of application), CHUM Ltd. plans to spend next to nothing on captioning (arguing that it makes no sense to spend more money on captioning than it takes to license the show for broadcast in the first place[3]), with no written commitment to meet the CRTC’s 1995 captioning requirements[4].

CHUM also advances the laughable claim that its programs, many of which feature screenfuls of unvoiced print in each episode, are accessible to the blind[5]. (Try watching MediaTelevision or even MuchMusic with your back turned. Can you follow everything?) CRTC commissioners are apt to fall for this, since none of them seems to actually watch TV, let alone TV with captions or descriptions. Yet none other than Moses Znaimer himself put the lie to that assertion in testimony on August 24, explaining that one of his networks plans a Pop-Up Video approach on some shows, with added titles that, like nearly all the other titles on his many programs, will never, ever be read aloud[6].

It gets worse: The CRTC and broadcasters continue their nearly-20-year-old practice of looking the other way regarding the miserable quality of Canadian captioning (watch for yourself – compare Bob & Margaret and The Simpsons, or Traders and E.R.). The monopoly provider of audio description here, an outfit called AudioVision Canada, itself produces manifestly inferior work compared to DVS. (Based on its CRTC testimony, AudioVision doesn’t even know which U.S. networks carry descriptions[7].)

Accessible TV is a mess in Canada and it’s only going to get worse. Two governments not known for forcing corporations to do anything against their will – American (see captioning and A.D. requirements) and British – require substantial increases in audio description and captioning over the next decade. The CRTC needs to hold broadcasters’ feet to the fire and insist on no slipup in captioning quantity, even if they continue to ignore captioning quality. And if the CRTC fails even to match U.S. standards for required audio description, by the time the new licenses expire in 2007 a full twenty years will have passed with no real access to television for blind Canadians. Can you say “lost generation”?


1. Clown White was the first captioned-in-Canada program (1981), though shows like The Littlest Hobo and Shogun aired in Canada with captions produced in the U.S.

2. Like no mention whatsoever of captioning on MuchMusic, and buying MuchMoreMusic’s and MusiquePlus’s captioning plans wholesale, even though they don’t meet the requirements.

3. Jay Switzer: “We found ourselves in a position in some of these ultra-niche channels of coming forward in a way where we may end up or might be in a situation where we would be spending more money captioning some foreign programming than the licence fees cost. And we said, What are the priorities?”

4. Their application actually says “In view of the relatively sparse penetration of digital services and likely use of older recorded material, it is impossible to project the percentage of programming that will be captioned over the term of the license.” Percentages are what the CRTC explicitly required in 1995.

5. Exact quote from the application: “We meet this need by ensuring that graphics and visuals are as large and clear as possible and that, whenever possible, on-screen text is accompanied by voice-overs that provide a concise summary of information presented visually. Where applicable, phone numbers are supplied orally so that viewers may access more information.” As though reading a phone number out loud here and there constitutes access.

6. Moses Znaimer: “One of the things we favoured over the years is added text on screen. It is now known as pop-up video, but we have called it dense television for 20 years. We are great believers in it. As the program is running, subject to getting agreement on whoever owns that property, we would also pop up information that contextualizes the material to the identity of the channel all through the piece.”

7. AudioVision knows about PBS and Narrative Television Network, but not Turner Classic Movies. The exact testimony reads:

COMMISSIONER WILSON: Every seven minutes. Mr. Eden, you made the comment about the resistance in the disability community to be ghettoized in terms of a channel, a completely described channel. Is there not a channel – besides PBS, is there not a channel in the U.S. that is predominantly described video?

29447 MR. EDEN: No. PBS are the ones that carry it, unless there’s a channel in one of the smaller markets that I am unaware of. I live in Niagara, so I get an opportunity to watch some U.S. TV that comes over – not just via the usual pathways – and I have not seen anything like that. But I may not be fully informed.

MR. TRIMBEE: If I could just add to that, there is a specialty network, the Narrative Television Network, and they carry four hours of described programming, mainly public domain movies, all on open description, unlike PBS, which has produced roughly about 1,600 or 1,700 hours of described programming, and they carry it all on closed format on the SAP channel.

COMMISSIONER WILSON: And the Narrative Television Network, the four hours, is that per day?

MR. TRIMBEE: That’s today, yes.



COMMISSIONER WILSON: Four hours per day?

MR. TRIMBEE: Per day.