Joe Clark: Media access

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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

  • Race – In late 1995, AudioVision Canada produced a demo reel of snippets of TV programming, films, and commercials to promote its still-embryonic service. A wordless Reebok commercial was described thus:

    A boy practicing soccer at twilight kicks his soccer ball into outer space. It turns into a tennis ball which is smashed by a tennis player, then into a basketball which is slam-dunked into the rings of Saturn. Four men run past on the rings. A soccer player appears as Saturn transforms into a ball; he kicks it, shattering the rings. It sails down to earth as a lighted globe, which the boy catches. He grins, and kicks it back into space, where it turns into the Reebok logo.

    That description was quite effective, at a surface level, at encapsulating a brief TV commercial and is an example of the typically economical but impressively elegant writing that is the norm in audio description. However, the describer glossed over issues of race and sex relevant to the commercial.

    Every person in the commercial is male. The man who slam-dunks the basketball is Shaquille O’Neal, who is black and a recognized Reebok spokesmodel. (His tank top is in fact emblazoned Shaq.) One of the four men running on the rings is black. Everyone else is white. We have to remember that no TV commercial of this level of artifice contains any accidental casting. All the actors are male for a reason, and all but two of them are white for a reason, even if athleticwear juggernaut Reebok might not want to articulate those reasons.

    One could reasonably argue that the describer should have identified all the players as male, and at least mentioned Shaquille O’Neal by name; average blind people would be aware that he is black. Failing that, Rule Number One of audio description – "describe what you see" – would dictate that the describer at least state that the ball was "slam-dunked into the rings of Saturn by a black player." There was ample time to do so. "Four men – three white, one black – run past on the rings" would also have been advisable. (On the other hand, isn’t there a tacit assumption that all persons not identified as black are white?)

    The issue of race comes up elsewhere in describing live theatre, particularly when casting is "non-traditional" – case in point, a black Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Alan Woods, an experienced describer in Ohio, wrote online that "if the Eliza is African-American, I’d mention it only if the production made something of it; otherwise I’d describe the performer the same way I’d describe other performers: height, hair colour, eye colour, etc. If the production has used the actress’ ethnicity to make a point about the class system in England just prior to [World War I], then the ethnicity becomes germane....

    "If the theatre is trumpeting its non-traditional casting, for example, then I’d say something about the way a production is cast. I once described a Comedy of Errors in which the genders were all reversed. I mentioned that in the program notes, but then didn’t worry about it, figuring that the voices made the genders clear enough."

    Another describer recounts dealing with Eliza’s being portrayed by a black actor: "We couldn’t decide how to let our VIP audience know that. As it turns out, there are brief moments in the show where certain characters react to Eliza’s colour – at the ball, when she is presented and there is a reaction from the black man who announces names, as well as the reaction of the group until the guest of honour Prince of Tranzylvania asks her for a dance." Ultimately it was decided that "the actress playing Eliza will be identified as a black woman when we read the bios of the actors in the preshow talk." (On TV, describers lack that luxury: There is no "preshow talk.")

    Joel Snyder writes that "the describer is something of an arbiter in that you can’t describe everything that is seen – one must choose the visual elements that are most pertinent given the time restrictions." And this leads to another controversy.

  • Sexuality – Audio description makes existing works accessible to blind viewers. Scenes involving violence, nudity, and/or sex – the big three targets of film censorship – are often found in films sent out for description.

    For example, in Schindler’s List (described by John Krienke at DVS), at one point Oskar Schindler is interviewing prospective secretaries. His assistant is Stern. The DVS narrator describes the action.

    Schindler: Filing; billing; keeping track of my appointments; typing, obviously. How is your typing?

    Woman: Uh... all right.

    Schindler: Please. [Motions that she sit down]

    Narrator: As painters refurbish his factory office, Schindler has a young woman sit behind a typewriter. Schindler folds his arms and stares at her smooth, pretty face. [Types away] Another girl, a brunette, sits at the typewriter and smiles. Now, a tall blonde. Schindler kindly slides back the return carriage for her. She grins. Next, a young lady squints and leans close to the paper. Another smiling blonde. A thin, wavy-haired brunette with a coy smile. Schindler leans on the desk and gazes at a stunning young woman, who returns his unwavering stare. Now, a despondently-slouching Schindler as a gruff middle-aged woman types away, a cigarette dangling from her lips.

    Stern: You need a secretary. Pick one.

    Schindler: I don’t know how. They’re all so... qualified.

    Stern: You have to choose.

    Narrator: Outside, Schindler poses with 20 beautiful secretaries.

    Photographer: Big smile, big smile!

    Narrator: A photographer takes a picture. [Scene changes]

    In fact, an outside observer might evaluate the "stunning young woman" as no more or less pretty than the other young women, though clearly Schindler was more interested in her than in the others. The first young woman had no more a "smooth, pretty face" than the other "girls." What reasons were there for describing the secretaries thus? (A possible answer, or explanation, is upcoming. Read on.)

    Later, Schindler’s wife Emily appears at his door, and he and Emily visit an elegant nightclub, where a woman flirts with Schindler. Further on, this scene:

    Narrator: Later, in his bed, Schindler kisses Ingrid, the flirtatious girl from the club. They roll around naked and entangled in the sheet. Out in the hall, Pfefferberg wanders toward the bedroom. Ingrid rolls to the top, her firm young breasts above his broad chest. Pfefferberg glances in and takes a bolstering breath.

    [Pfefferberg knocks on doorglass]

    Pfefferberg: Herr Direktor?

    Schindler [quietly, to Ingrid]: Shit. I don’t believe it. [Raising his voice] Stern, is that you?

    Pfefferberg: No, it’s Poldek. It’s about Stern.

    Here one questions the choice of focus. Both Schindler and Ingrid are topless, but as elsewhere in Hollywood, female toplessness is seen as more risqué and erotic than male, and the female character is described in more lascivious terms than the male. What reasoning motivated the description of Ingrid as having "firm young breasts" vs. Schindler’s "broad chest"? Was there an assumption that the listener of the descriptions is male? (Or lesbian?)

    These are not frivolous issues. If you can’t see the screen, you rely on audio to understand a film. If audio descriptions are provided, is it reasonable to expect no bias or taint in the writing? Or is that an unattainable goal?

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:

  • How to handle subtitled films or subtitled passages in films? With separate narrators for both genders? With separate narrators for the subtitles and for the standard audio-description text?
  • When is it permissible to describe over music or dialogue? (Schindler’s List, for example, has cases of both.)
  • Under what circumstances are narrators with accents acceptable? Should a British film, for example, be given a British narrator even for U.S. release with audio descriptions?
  • When are male or female narrators required or forbidden?