Please Describe What Just Happened
Have you ever watched your favorite television program and missed a crucial part of the action because there was no dialogue? With the addition of a description track, people who are blind or have low vision can enjoy the program and know exactly what is happening when no dialogue is present. For example, when I found out that the cable channel TNT aired reruns of one of my favorite shows, Law & Order, with description, I felt like I was watching the show for the first time. It was only then that I found out how much I had missed because I could not see the screen. Descriptions focus on action, gestures, costumes, and other nonverbal information.
In the September 2002 issue of AccessWorld, Deborah Kendrick addressed the description issue in "What's On Tonight." Now, as then, the overwhelming majority of programs on the four major networks, CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC, do not include descriptions, although there has been a small recent increase. Public television channels and a few cable channels, including Nickelodeon, Lifetime, TCM, and TNT, do air some described programs.
If a program is described, the description track can be accessed through the Secondary Audio Program (SAP) feature on a television or videocassette recorder. Sometimes it is difficult for a person who is blind to access the SAP setting without sighted help. Some televisions now come with one-button SAP access.
The FCC Spoke
As Kendrick's article mentioned, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) issued an order requiring broadcasters that are affiliated with the four major networks in the top 25 television markets to offer so-called video-description services by April 2002. Cable and satellite providers with 50,000 or more subscribers were also required to carry descriptions for any of their networks that are rated in the top five. Any station that was affected by this mandate had to provide 50 hours of described programming per calendar quarter, with an emphasis on children's programs and prime-time shows.
"The industry had been doing some video description; the pace picked up considerably and there was some pretty good compliance," said Alan Dinsmore, senior governmental relations representative for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). "Then the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed suit in federal district court, asking that the rule be overturned." Dinsmore explained that the MPAA objected to the law because many of its members were also television producers. He added, "The NFB agreed with the MPAA that the FCC had exceeded its ancillary authority by issuing this mandate. It argued that this was just entertainment programming and really wasn't what was needed. Basically, there was a need to try to get a lot of information that is generally on the screen but is not described in any way."
On November 8, 2002, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to make such a ruling, and the mandate was struck down. The court subsequently denied a rehearing, and there was no appeal to the Supreme Court. To date, there are no compliance regulations.
On the Agenda
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would explicitly give the FCC the authority to reinstate its rule, and Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives. At this time, both bills are still stuck in their respective committees.
The Video Access Coalition, which includes many organizations, such as AFB, American Council of the Blind, American Association of Retired Persons, Foundation Fighting Blindness, and American Association of Persons with Disabilities, is working to get this legislation passed. "The Video Access Coalition is going to try to push for this thing one way or the other. If it doesn't move, we've got another session to move it," said Dinsmore. More information about the coalition can be found at the web site <www.washear.org/coalition.htm>.
There are currently four main providers of described programming: the Descriptive Video Service of WGBH, Narrative Television Network, WeSee TV, and National Captioning Institute. Regardless of which one is providing the description, the basic process of describing a program involves creating a separate description track and adding it to the program. When the show is aired, the description track is accessed through the SAP feature on your television or VCR.
WGBH, a public television station in Boston, was one of the early pioneers in the field of described programming. "DVS (Descriptive Video Service) is an outgrowth of WGBH's three decades of making television accessible to people with disabilities. That work started in the early 1970s with captioning on television for people who are deaf or hard of hearing," explained Mary Watkins, the outreach director for the Media Access Group at WGBH. "With the advent of stereo television in the 1980s, we had staff who were looking to exploit that new feature to make television more enjoyable for people who had low vision or who were blind."
DVS was launched in 1990, when American Playhouse was aired on 32 PBS stations. (The term DVS is trademarked by WGBH. Programs or movies may be described by different organizations.) Watkins continued, "From there, we did a lot of PBS programs and a lot of movies on the Turner Classic Movies channel. We developed the DVS Home Video program and from there, just grew to network television, movies, and now on the web."
Creating the Description Track
Ira Miller, the operations manager of the Media Access Group, is in charge of the writers and postproduction supervisors who do the description in the Boston office. "We have two offices--one in Los Angeles and one in Boston. Most of the network work is done in the Los Angeles office. We do most of the PBS programming here, but we share work all the time," he explained.
Miller added that the production of the DVS track is similar in television programs and movies. For television, he said, "We get a finished program from the producer, from the network, and our writers watch it and find the places where there are pauses, where there's no dialogue or narration. These are the places [for which we write] the description of the key visual elements. The writers write the script, and an editor edits it to make sure that it fits within the pauses and that it is according to our style of description, so that anyone listening will immediately recognize it as description. Next, we take the script into the audio recording booth, where it is read by professional actors. Then the narration script is mixed with the program audio, so it becomes the DVS track. That track is put on the master tape and aired from the network. It can then be selected by a viewer with the SAP channel."
For movies and videos, there is a slightly different method of delivery. Miller explained that the writing process is the same, but there is a difference in the method of delivery. When a described movie is shown at a theater, the track comes through a pair of headphones, so that the surround sound and other audio elements are not lost. In a home video, the described track is already on the tape and will automatically play, so you do not have to select it as you would with a television program.
According to Watkins, the networks decide which programs will be described. As she noted, "Several years ago there was a mandate in place, and the networks that were required to provide description chose a number of programs. I believe that they sometimes chose programs on the basis of turnaround time and sometimes on the basis of the programs' popularity. Once that mandate was rescinded, several networks either cut back or ceased to provide described programming. The networks that now do described programs choose their most popular programs and are doing description voluntarily, paying for it themselves."
Watkins says that the main obstacle to getting more described programs is funding and convincing the networks that there is a large enough audience that would use the service so it would be worthwhile to spend the money. She added that many more people use captioning than use video description, so that it has been easier to obtain corporate sponsorship for captioning than for descriptive video. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) provides some funding for educational programs but not for entertainment shows. Therefore, funding for entertainment programs comes from the networks that air these shows. For example, CBS contributes funds to have CSI described, and Fox contributes funds to have The Simpsons described.
In addition to his regular job, Miller is the project director of a DOE grant for accessible programming on television. He explained that the DOE has "specific guidelines of what programs can use grant funding--the programs must be educational, so they are appropriate to be shown in a classroom setting. They also have to be broadcast on television." Blue's Clues and Go Diego Go are examples of programs that meet the DOE's guidelines. Rug Rats is also described using DOE funds because the series was described prior to the more stringent guidelines.
"The other main source of funding has been WGBH, which has been supportive and has used its own funding." The programs that WGBH has funded for audio description include Mystery, American Experience, Nova, and Arthur.
Narrative Television Network
The Narrative Television Network (NTN), founded in 1988 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is still run by people with visual impairments, including its president and founding member, Jim Stovall. "We've worked with all the major networks and motion picture studios," Stovall said. "We've grown and do more hours of accessible programming, with description, than anyone in the field. We do well over 1,000 hours of programming now." NTN does description for television and for movies and live theater presentations.
Creating the Description Track
Stovall and his late partner came up with a set of rules for description, including Do not give your opinion and Do not tell the audience anything they would not have known if they were sighted. During narration, the narrator's voice should not be heard at the same time that an actor is speaking.
When NTN receives a program, the description track is written and recorded at its studio. "We have a team of writers. We'll get a program in, and one of our writers will be assigned to the project," explained Stovall. "That script will be reviewed by several people." Once the script is approved, the recording process begins. "The script goes downstairs to our studio," Stovall continued. "The narrator reads it into our digital system. It all gets put back together in between the dialogue. Then, with the sound level set, it goes back to the network."
When NTN finds a program that should be described, it contacts the network. Stovall indicated that frequently several network people have to approve the idea of the program being described. Other issues are who owns the program, whether it is syndicated, and what rights are involved. It costs approximately $2,000 to describe a one-hour program.
"We try to choose the best programs we can," Stovall said. "As a blind person myself, I'm acutely aware of how little accessible programming there is. A good program that's described is still a good program, and a bad program that's described is still a bad program." He noted that "a lot of people get into description who aren't consumers of the product. They judge description while they're watching the screen, and that's a huge mistake. The described program becomes accessible only when a person who is blind or has low vision experiences the program."
One of the most popular programs that NTN describes is Law & Order, shown on TNT. Stovall said that NTN just finished describing episode 350 of the show and that as soon as a season goes into syndication, NTN starts its work. The Law & Order spin-offs (Law & Order Special Victims Unit and Law & Order Criminal Intent) are in syndication on the USA network. Stovall said that there has been some discussion about getting those two shows described as well. He added, "I don't want to start a series unless we get a long-term commitment."
NTN has also described many movies aired on TBS, TCM, and TNT, including Star Wars, Home Alone, Ghostbusters, and Girl, Interrupted. In addition, it has described some children's shows on PBS, such as Caillou, as well as Nature for PBS and shows for the NBC/Discovery channel, Lifetime, and USA. Stovall indicated that most of the programming that NTN describes is educational because most of the funding available is for such programs.
According to Stovall, funding is the biggest obstacle to getting more described programming on the air. He said, "There's a point in this business or in any other where you have to reach a critical mass, and we haven't quite gotten there yet. We've got to get a core collection of programming that is sufficient enough to start building an industry."
"I think that the big hurdle is the bill on Capitol Hill to empower the FCC to begin mandating certain amounts of description, just like it does for captioning," said Stovall. "Even people who are not big fans of government mandates or regulations need to understand that the airwaves are for everyone. A number of years ago, Congress appropriately decided that since deaf and hard-of-hearing people pay taxes, they own the public airwaves just like everyone else and should be given access. There's a bill right now that would mandate a similar parity for people who are blind or have low vision, and I think that's a big step forward."
In addition to heading NTN, Stovall is an author. One of his novels has been made into a movie, The Ultimate Gift, starring James Garner, Lee Meriwether, and Brian Dennehy, which will be released in fall 2006. "We're going to run a number of premieres, across the country, that are described premieres for people who are blind and have low vision," Stovall explained. "Instead of getting something that's two years or four years out, people who are blind and have low vision will, for the first time, be able to come to a theater and experience this described premiere before anyone else has seen the movie."
WeSee TV was started in Los Angeles in 1999 by Rick Boggs, who was doing publicity for DVS at WGBH. At that time, Boggs, who is blind, had a recording studio and was recording commercials and other audio projects. He said that he was the first totally blind person to use the recording software Pro Tools. "I never put two and two together. Hey, what they're doing, I also have the skills to do. A friend of mine who worked in the captioning industry pointed it out to me. I thought I would try it. I noticed that there was no description on television other than PBS."
It was important to Boggs that blind people be employed at his network. "What I decided that would be different about WeSee TV is that we would employ blind recording engineers and voice-over artists. Every single product we put out is reviewed by blind consumers," he explained. The writers, however, are sighted.
Today, the WeSee TV network does description for The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC and Malcolm in the Middle and That 70s Show for Fox. It also provided description for Blind Justice on ABC, which was cancelled because it did not do well in the ratings. "What we really need is a good, competent blind character," Boggs stated, "and now there aren't any, and there probably won't be any for a long time."
Creating the Description Track
When WeSee TV receives a program for description, it imports the audio track into Pro Tools. The voice-over artist, who has a professional script, sits in the vocal booth with a microphone and headphones. Through the headphones, the narrator can hear both the movie and the voice of the recording engineer.
Each description segment is recorded separately. The narrator's script contains what is said in the program just before the narrator is supposed to start reading that segment. The engineer counts down, and the narrator speaks.
Once the description track is recorded, it is cleaned up to remove breath sounds and other extra sounds that should not be there. Then the description track is mixed with the original audio track. Boggs added, "If we don't have a blind audio engineer mixing, then a blind quality-control specialist will be present during the mix. One of the things that we do best is that we're much more careful with our mixes. We try to make the finished product seem as though the description track was conceived at the same time as the program. We don't want it to sound as if it was layered over." Boggs added that the FCC mandates minimum and maximum volume levels for television programs and that this information is important when mixing the description track for a television show.
Since WeSee TV does not receive any governmental funding, it must get advertisers to underwrite the cost of the description. Then, within the program's description track, these sponsors are given plugs when there is sufficient time between dialogue and description. For example, during each segment of Blind Justice, GW Micro was mentioned several times.
In addition to his job as president of WeSee TV, Boggs is vice co-chair of the Performers with Disabilities National Committee. He said, "I work with Robert David Hall (who plays Robbins on CSI). We've worked in the trenches since the early 1990s to improve opportunities for performers with disabilities and to make TV and film programming more accessible to people with disabilities."
"Blind consumers who want to see more described media need to be aware of the role that they play in that future because they're not aware now," Boggs said. "Blind people should support description, make sure it's economically viable, so that we'll have a big future in description." He believes that the future of described programming may move from television to the Web, so consumers will be able to download programs the same way that they now download music.
National Captioning Institute
As its name implies, the National Captioning Institute (NCI) provides captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as described programming for people who are visually impaired. Joel Snyder, NCI's director of described media, has been involved in the field of description since 1980. He was one of the original narrators when Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl began producing description for live theater events in Washington, DC. After that, he wrote and narrated description for a variety of television programs, including Mystery and American Playhouse. Snyder said, "I've been working with description probably longer than just about anybody who currently works in media with description."
Shortly after the original FCC mandate of described programming, NCI wanted to start to provide description. At that time, Snyder had his own company, Audio Description Associates, where he was doing description for television, IMAX films, and live events, as well as training describers. About four years ago, Snyder joined NCI. Audio Description Associates is still in existence, but described media programming is now done through NCI.
Snyder is a member of the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee. "The FCC is encouraging the use of digital transmission," he said. "As broadcasters move into digital format, things are going to change. It will broaden the availability for description; we won't be limited to one channel. Right now it's a channel of audio that we share. It really bodes well for description."
Creating the Description Track
At NCI, once the writer receives a program, a description script is written. If the program is longer than a half hour, two or more describers may work on the project. Snyder indicated that it takes one writer six to eight hours to develop a script for a 30-minute program. Once the initial script is written, a senior describer reviews it. The script is then reviewed by Snyder. Once the description track is recorded, it is mixed onto the original program and sent back to be shown.
The programs that NCI describes are chosen by the networks, public television stations, or cable channels. Snyder speculated that the programs that are the most popular for each of these entities and those with many visual elements are the ones that get described. Programs that are currently described by NCI include Sesame Street, PBS specials, Fairly Odd Parents, Talk Zone, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide, network movies, programs on the Ovation Network, and Martha Stewart Everyday Food.
Although the DOE provides funding to NCI for described educational programming, some programs are paid for with private funds. "The networks are paying for it perhaps because they've gotten good feedback from consumers, and they are providing a service which is really important," Snyder said. "The world at large should remember that there are 10 million to 12 million folks, in this country alone, who have low vision or are blind. These people have friends and families. That's a significant number."
Snyder is promoting the idea that listening to description helps promote literacy. "It's well proved that captioning improves literacy for kids. We're working on showing that description does the same thing," he explained. "If kids hear description for Sesame Street or Clifford's Puppy Days, they will hear synonyms, similies, metaphors, and varied word choices. That helps everybody build literacy."
To get more programs described, Snyder suggested contacting sponsors as well as the television stations. "If sponsors can realize that there's buying power out there, that there are people who want this, they will be willing to put up some money. They'll realize that there are people listening and people who want these programs. . . . Description needs a lot more visibility. Even people who are blind don't know about it. We just need a lot more of that awareness."
The Bottom Line
Although there is some described programming on television, the overwhelming majority of programs are not described. Consumers need to be supportive of this type of programming and let television networks and sponsors know that they want more of it. Consumers need to write letters of appreciation to networks that air such programs and let their federal legislators know that they want the FCC's mandate for described programming restored.
For More Information
The following web sites are sources of additional information on video description.
Audio Description Associates: <www.audiodescribe.com>
Audio Description International: <www.adinternational.org>
An excellent web site for learning more about the field of description.
National Captioning Institute: <www.ncicap.org>
Narrative Television Network: <www.narrativetv.com>
Web site containing a schedule of described programs.
Video Access Coalition: <www.washear.org/coalition.htm>
WeSee TV: <www.weseetv.com>
WGBH Media Access Group: <www.wgbh.org/access>.
WBGH Descriptive Video Service: <http://main.wgbh.org/wgbh/pages/mag/services/description>
What's on Tonight? by Deborah Kendrick
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