Joe Clark: Media access

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Narrated TV replaces sights with sounds

Originally written 1994 | Updated 2001.07.17

They may not be able to see the screen, but blind, low-vision and visually-impaired people do watch TV. (And “watch” is the term they use, too, not “listen.”) While dialogue and sound effects might be easy to understand, TV relies heavily on visual information to tell its stories – everything from facial expressions to the colour of the sky to onscreen titles to scenes with little, if any, dialogue. Without those visual cues, watching TV is an exercise in frustration.

Technology, however, has come to the rescue in the form of audio description, a generic term for the process by which a special narrator describes onscreen action during pauses in dialogue. Audio description was first used in live theatre; blind theatregoers would wear the same infrared or FM receivers meant for hard-of-hearing people and listen to narrations along with the regular audio.

Take an imaginary TV example: If a doorbell rings during a TV drama, the narrator might take advantage of the brief silence between the doorbell sound effect and the dialogue heard after the door is opened to provide this kind of commentary: “Pat quickly turns his gaze toward the door. Setting down his knife and fork, he gets up and walks to the front door, tucking his shirt in on the way. He peers through the door’s peephole, cocks an eyebrow, and opens the door to see Chris holding a bouquet of roses.”

The Descriptive Video Service of the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston has been “describing” PBS series like Degrassi High, Nature, and Masterpiece Theatre since January 1990. DVS descriptions on PBS are carried on the second audio program (SAP) channel of stereo TV sound. To hear the descriptions, your local PBS station has to broadcast in stereo and your cable company needs to pass through that stereo signal unaltered (in Canada, not all do) and you must have a stereo TV or VCR set to SAP. DVS also produces a line of home videos (available by calling 800-736-3099) of feature films like Aladdin, Anne of Green Gables and Field of Dreams with descriptions that are always audible whenever the tape is played.

Meanwhile, the Family Channel in Canada has been running one “classic” movie a month with always-audible descriptions created by the Narrative Television Network, a Tulsa, Oklahoma company specializing in audio descriptions for old movies. NTN, founded by Jim Stovall, a blind person who also hosts an Elwy Yost-style pre-movie interview show, is broadcast seven days a week on the Nostalgia Television network in the U.S. The Family Channel has broadcast one film a month since November 1993; network president Len Cochrane became aware of the need for accessible TV after meeting the mother, who happened to be blind, of one of his kids’ friends. Cochrane later met Stovall at an industry convention and inked a two-year contract.

Once the contract expires in late 1995, Cochrane says, “my ultimate goal is to put it on SAP” so that more programs could be aired with descriptions. (Curiously, the Family Channel does not produce TV listings and program guides in large print, braille, or audiotape for its blind viewers; Cochrane says he relies on the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to get the word out.) Stovall’s viewer surveys show that 60% of NTN’s audience is made up of sighted people, calling into question the conventional wisdom that sighted people would resent the descriptions as much as hearing people are purported to resent television captions for deaf viewers.