March/April 2012
Volume 32 No. 2

March/April 2012
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DV To Add Millions Of Blind People To Video Consumption

By Dom Serafini

In the U.K., a recently aired BBC parody poked fun at the ITV costume drama Downton Abbey because of its very long scenes with no dialogue in which characters communicate simply by exchanging glares. Now, imagine a blind person trying to follow along without a voice describing those mostly silent Downton scenes.

Diane Johnson

In the U.K., two million people have sight loss. There are an estimated 30 million adult Americans, or 9.5 percent of the population, who have trouble seeing or are blind. Depending on the degree of vision impairment, the number could be as high as 54 million (according to Turner Broadcasting research). In Canada, people with seeing disabilities represent 4.5 percent of the population. These are people who, if not for Audio Description (AD) and Described Video (DV) technology, would not be consuming television. But, while in Canada in 2003 the regulatory TV agency CRTC demanded that certain broadcasters provide DV for programming, in the U.S., the FCC will not implement DV until July 2012.

In 2009 the CRTC further required that all broadcasters and specialty TV services provide DV for programming (pay-TV on the other hand doesn’t have specific DV requirements). Currently, TV stations in the U.K., Japan and South Africa provide DV and AD services. Australia will start testing DV in July of this year.

It is unfortunate that DV and AD have not yet fully entered into the entertainment media lexicon. We cannot recall a TV trade show conference or a seminar where the topic has been discussed.

Suppliers of DV and AD services have recognized that this technology lags in consumer and trade consciousness, especially compared to closed captioning. Plus, the lack of standards and common best practices increases the complexity, making it a less understood — and hence a less desirable — topic for conferences.

To begin with, there is confusion between the definitions of DV and AD. In most countries outside North America, the term Audio Description is used. In Canada, the common terminology is Described Video, and in the U.S., it’s Described Video Services (DVS). However, among industry professionals, the term most often used is Audio Description. So far, only the CRTC seems to have established formal definitions for Described Video and Audio Description: DV is when a narrator provides a description of a program’s key visual elements. It applies to scripted programs, such as dramas, comedies and documentaries.

AD is when an announcer reads aloud the textual and graphic information that is displayed on the screen, and it is best suited for live, information-based programming.
As far as standardization is concerned, the Canadian TV sector is taking a leadership role with the formation of the DV Working Group to focus on technical standards and awareness of DV programming.

Canada is also at the forefront of the DV-AD facility sector with over a dozen companies providing such services, of which five are major suppliers. In the U.S. there is just one major service company and it is part of WGBH, the PBS Boston TV station, which pioneered DV in 1986.

According to Diane Johnson, CEO and president of the Vancouver-based DV Works, on average it takes about eight hours to write a one-hour show.

DV Works is one of the leading DV and AD companies in the world and, added Johnson, “the only company that has two blind people that chair our research and development team.”
Peter Burke, VP of Marketing and Communications at the Toronto-based Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) said that adding AD and DV to a one-hour program costs about C$1,500.

President and CEO David Errington described AMI as a not-for-profit multimedia organization for all Canadians and in particular those who are deaf or vision impaired, which operates two broadcast services: VoicePrint (a reading service) and AIM-TV, a video network.

In Canada, responsibility for providing DV lies with the broadcasters. DV Work’s Johnson commented, “Some of the broadcasters take care of the costs of the DV and sometimes they pass the cost to the producers. It really depends on the broadcaster. We do most of Bell Media’s [owner of CTV, among other TV networks] work and they pay us directly.”

However, at NATPE 2012 in Miami Beach, Florida, during a conference on television in Canada, the broadcasters on the panel said producers of acquired content had to provide programs with DV audio track, which is then broadcast on the TV outlets’ secondary audio channel.
The availability of DV is indicated by a symbol as well as an audio announcement before the program begins, and it is listed in the electronic programming guides.

AMI’s Burke explained that, in Canada, English-language stations have to provide DV and AD in both English and French, but even though “the French-language TVA network [in Quebec] is expected to provide described video, it has no condition of license requiring it.” For its part, AMI-TV offers a minimum of four hours per week of French language DV programs.

DV Works’ Johnson added, “We have been doing French DV for AMI and Aboriginal Peoples Television for three years. The CRTC has now mandated that, starting this September, the French-language Province of Quebec has to include DV and AD in their programming.”
The CRTC further requires that specialty channels carry at least three hours per week of DV programming, and four hours for the broadcast stations.

Currently, in the U.S. commercial networks ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX, plus public network PBS, carry DV and AD services. According to the FCC, affiliates of these four big broadcast networks in the top 25 markets and five cable networks (USA, Disney Channel, TNT, TBS and Nickelodeon) must provide 50 hours of DV a week. The rule took effect in October 2009, but the TV outlets have until July 2012 to comply. The rule extends the DV requirement to the big four affiliates in the 60 largest markets in July 2015.

In terms of costs to producers and international program distributors, DV and AD represent an added expenditure, which, in the beginning, will certainly favor sales of Canadian content, since it already offers the largest number of hours of programs that carry such services in both French and English. When these services are extended to other languages, the industry will have to find a business model that will benefit all parties: producers, distributors and outlets.

Today, only Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, India, Switzerland (German canton), the U.K. and the U.S. are required to provide DV and AD. In India the service is, for now, limited to theatrical movies, and is offered in Hindi and some other regional languages. Brazil and Spain are also looking to incorporate DV into their audiovisual services. In these cases it is reported that Mexican Spanish could be used — at least in the beginning to save money — in both countries since Brazilians tend to understand Spanish fairly well.

(On VideoAge’s website — www.videoage.org — there’s a link to download a 55-page PDF document for DV and AD services from the World Blind Union.)

It is expected that DV and AD will both increase DVD sales and expand the universe of TV stations, even though TV outlets will not fully benefit from DV and AD since, currently, commercials do not offer the services. Though the services are perfectly suited for pay-TV channels, these outlets are not required to carry them.

In any event, DV and AD obligations are headed on our way, and there will be little chance to avoid them, though they are still often kept on the sidetrack.

Concluded DV Works’ Johnson, “[It is] hard to believe, but I’ve heard more than once the comment, ‘don’t those people have radio? Why would they need TV?’”

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