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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 5

Access Issues

What's on Tonight?

I had only one blind friend while I was growing up. She lived across town and went to another school, so what little time we had together was treasured, indeed. One summer night stands out in my memory. We spent the evening in a sleepover, as most teenage girls do: eating popcorn, drinking lemonade, giggling, and watching late-night TV in her parents' living room.

A 1942 movie was on around midnight, and about halfway through it, we became interested. It was the romantic part that captured us—the tough guy, wildly in love with the woman from his past, now married to someone else. Suddenly, in the penultimate scene, there was more music than dialogue, and we were stuck. Did she get on the plane or not? The answer meant everything to the romance of the thing, and the dialogue was enigmatic.

"What happened?" we asked one another simultaneously, and then began to giggle when we realized that neither of us could tell the other the answer. We were laughing, but there was a certain poignancy in that moment, too, a moment that I now know was a reminder to each of us, silently, that we were excluded.

Movies and TV programs have become even more sophisticated (and visual) over the decades. Scenes change rapidly. Images are superimposed over one another. Animation is artfully blended with real life. To appreciate the medium on a par with viewers who have both sight and hearing requires access to both audio and video elements. Whether TV is a priority in your life or not, it is a significant part of our culture. At the office, the gym, the school playground, or family picnics, TV programs and movies come up in conversations. For those who want to take part in those conversations and who happen to be blind, the possibilities for accessible TV viewing have increased significantly in recent months.

A Bit of History

With the launch of Descriptive Video Service (DVS) by WGBH-TV of Boston in the late 1980s, some TV programs began carrying an additional audio track, concisely describing the visual elements on the screen that could not be readily detected in dialogue or other sounds. There were only a few programs at first, but the number and variety of programs with description has grown steadily—as has the number of Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations around the country broadcasting the DVS track when it is available. DVS became a permanent national service in 1990, broadcasting American Playhouse with description to 32 PBS affiliates. By 1997, the number of stations that carried DVS had grown to 144, and DVS was available in the top 20 TV markets and 78 percent of U.S. households. Today, WGBH provides approximately 10 hours of described programming each week, including such popular programs as Nova, Nature, American Experience, and Masterpiece Theatre, for adults; and such children's favorites as Arthur, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Zoom.

It is no surprise that WGBH has been a pioneer in providing access to the visual elements of TV for those who are unable to see the screen. A decade earlier, this station gave birth to the concept of closed captioning—presenting on-screen text equivalents of spoken dialogue and sounds for deaf viewers. It is now rare to find a TV program without captioning on any network, and, as so often happens with innovations initiated for people with disabilities, captioning is enjoyed by many who are not hearing impaired.

In 1996, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) began offering movies on Sunday evenings with description. To date, TCM has added description to approximately 150 classic movies and broadcasts the accompanying description whenever those movies are aired. Films offered include such perennial favorites as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, National Velvet, Citizen Kane, The Sunshine Boys, and Pride andPrejudice.

Gaining Prime Time

If your TV tastes run elsewhere than to public TV or classic movies, read on. On April 1, 2002, a new FCC rule took effect that will dramatically increase the amount of described programming now available. The new rule requires the four commercial networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) to add description to at least 50 hours of programming per calendar quarter (about four hours a week), with priority given to prime-time and children's programs. At this point, the only stations that are required to pass through the described broadcasts are those in the top 25 markets (see list of cities at the end of the article) or those that can easily do so (if, for instance, a station in a smaller market already owns the necessary equipment). Popular programs already appearing with description on these networks include CSI, The Simpsons, Blue's Clues, and Bernie Mac (see the list of more programs at the end of the article).

The new rule places the same requirements on distributors of Multi-channel Video programming with at least 50,000 subscribers. Networks (in addition to TCM) on cable and satellite systems that have begun to carry video description include Lifetime, USA, TNT, and Nickelodeon.

Getting with the Program

Now comes the hard part. Putting programs with description on the air is one thing, but it takes a certain amount of technological savvy to bring those programs into your living room.

Video description is carried on the Second Audio Program (SAP) channel, an additional audio signal that must first be passed through by the TV station or service delivering programs to your area and then decoded by the appropriate equipment in your living room for you to hear it.

Most TV sets and VCR units that were manufactured after 1993 have the SAP feature available. If you're lucky enough to have a stereo TV or VCR with a dedicated SAP button, you simply activate the SAP channel, and you'll hear the described program whenever it is being broadcast. If not, there are alternative routes to the same end. If you receive programming via cable or satellite service, you can activate the SAP channel on that receiver. While some cable and satellite remote-control units offer an SAP button, most require the use of the on-screen menus. Obviously, if you are unable to see visual details on the screen to the extent that you find video description useful, you are probably unable to follow the menu prompts on your screen to activate the SAP channel as well.

If sighted assistance is required, other problems can arise. Incidentally, if you are activating the SAP channel via on-screen menus for your cable or satellite service, the prompts are rarely labeled SAP. Instead, you need to look for the language or audio selection between Spanish and English. Choosing Spanish will activate the SAP channel because alternative foreign language broadcasts are also aired on the SAP channel. In fact, if both video description and Spanish are available, the default is Spanish, and you will not hear the description at all. (In the near future, such conflicts will be resolved, since digital TV will allow up to 16 simultaneous broadcasts on one station, rather than the current 2.)

If a menu on your TV screen is the only way you have of activating the SAP channel, it follows logically that sighted assistance is also required to turn that channel off again. When you turn on the SAP channel, there are typically four possibilities:

  1. You'll hear nothing.
  2. If a described program is currently being broadcast, you'll hear that program's audio accompanied by the description.
  3. You'll hear a Spanish version of the current program.
  4. You'll hear a continuous message saying something like, "You are listening to the Second Audio Program channel, used to carry video description for blind and visually impaired viewers. Consult your TV listings for a schedule of programs that will include description."

In other words, if no described programming is currently available, all you will hear is the same announcement, over and over again, until you turn the SAP off.

If you have an older TV or VCR that doesn't have an SAP feature and you're not getting it through cable or satellite either, there is yet another way to hear the described programming. A special SAP receiver, which operates something like a radio, can be purchased as a stand-alone device to access the described audio track. The drawback to this device, of course, is that it provides audio only, so if TV programs are to be enjoyed with sighted friends or family members, the device must be connected to the audio output jack on your TV. Two distributors of stand-alone SAP receivers are FM Atlas (phone 218-879-7976 or 800-605-2219, toll-free; web site: <http://members.aol.com/fmatlas/home.html>) and CRL (phone: 602-438-0888; web site: <www.crlsystems.com>).

Obviously, the easiest way to enjoy the smorgasbord of described programs that are becoming available is with one button that can turn the SAP feature on and off at will. For the past six years or so, Panasonic had incorporated a single button on the remote control of several TVs and VCRs that toggles back and forth between regular audio and SAP. This year, Panasonic plans to have that button on 46 models—about 20 stereo TV models and virtually all stereo combination units (TVs with built-in VHS or DVD or both). Some other manufacturers may have one or two models with a dedicated button as well.

Bring on the Popcorn

Although networks had 18 months' notice to be ready with the required amount of programming on April 1, some have been faster than others to deliver. Currently, depending on where you live, roughly 30 to 40 hours of described programming are available each week, including movies, documentaries, sitcoms, dramas, and children's programs. Even if you happen to consider TV a frivolous pursuit, there is some educational or entertainment value to be gained in hearing a program with description. It makes me smile to think that today two young girls who are blind may be watching TV together somewhere and can learn what is happening as part of the broadcast when there is no dialogue.

A Sample of Programs

The list of programs now available is far too extensive to include in full; the following sample titles should give you some idea of the range of programs that are now being described. There are also a variety of movies, new and old, on TCM, TNT Lifetime, USA, and PBS.

  • Adventures from the Book of Virtues
  • American Experience
  • Arthur
  • The Bernie Mac Show
  • Blue's Clues
  • Boston Public
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
  • Jag
  • Law and Order
  • Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
  • Masterpiece Theatre
  • Mystery!
  • Nature
  • Nova
  • Rugrats
  • The Simpsons

Top 25 Markets for DVS

The four commercial networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) are required to deliver the 50 hours of described programming per calendar quarter only to the top 25 markets at this point. If you don't live in one of these areas and transmitting the SAP broadcast does not pose an "undue burden" to the station nearest you, you could still receive description. You are guaranteed access to description, however, if you watch TV in one of the following cities:

  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Cleveland
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Denver
  • Detroit
  • Houston
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • New YorkTampa-St.
  • Petersburg-Sarasota
  • Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • Pittsburgh
  • Portland, OR
  • Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco-Oakland-
  • San Jose
  • Seattle
  • St. Louis
  • Washington, DC

The Narrative TV Network now offers a daily schedule of described programs. Go to <www.narrativetv.com> for links to each day of the week, as well as dozens of full-length movies with description that can be heard on your computer.

Other sites offering schedule information are: <www.wgbh.org/dvs> for PBS programming; <www.turnerclassicmovies.com/NowPlaying/Index/0,3372,,00.html> for Turner Classic Movies; and <www.lifetimetv.com/cgi/tv_videodescrip.pl> for Lifetime Network.

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