Imagine a television network where you could tune in any time, 24/7, and every show on every channel automatically included audio description. Sounds farfetched, you say? Well, believe it or not, it's available right now, albeit in limited form.
You can't tune into this network on your TV set, even if you have one of the newer, accessible sets. Instead, you'll need to use a computer or mobile device to go to the website for Blindy.TV, whose slogan is: "Taking the Vision out of Television."
Log onto Blindy.TV and you will discover five channels of described audio TV and documentary content—no video, just the soundtrack. Channels include: Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi, Brain, and one called simply Etcetera. Each channel offers multiple ways to listen: you can use the site's accessible online player, download and install the Blindy.TV Windows app, or use your computer's own media player.
Click one of the channel name links on the homepage and along with starting the audio stream, you will also find a table with the day's schedule. For instance, at the time of this writing, the weekday Drama channel schedule included: CSI: NY, House M.D., Boardwalk Empire, Charmed, Blue Bloods, Bones, Numb3rs, Murder She Wrote, Law and Order: UK, Castle, Rizoli and Isles, NCIS, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, House M.D., Numb3rs, Cold Case, Revenge, and Criminal Minds.
For those with concerns about copyright laws, a Blindy.TV representative who prefers to remain anonymous says: "Since we are not streaming the video, just the audio, it's a gray area. If we get a takedown notice we will comply immediately, but so far we haven't heard from a single content owner."
Currently, Blindy TV has over 7,000 audio-described television series and documentary episodes. "We do a small quantity of audio narration in house, but mostly we depend on donated off-air recordings and recorded media that contain audio narration tracks," the representative says. "We edit out the commercials and station breaks from off-air recordings, then those episodes are posted for viewing."
According to the Blindy.TV representative, "We want blind individuals to enjoy our offerings, but that's not the main reason we do this. Our main goal is twofold. First, there are still a lot of vision-impaired individuals, especially the elderly, who don't know audio description is even available. We want to show them what's possible so they can help us with our second goal: encouraging listeners to pressure the various content producers, networks, and online services to produce a lot more audio-described television."
According to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, starting this July all of the major TV networks and cable channels will be required to carry a minimum of four hours of audio-described prime time or children's programming. In the January 2015 AccessWorld article "Is Accessible Viewing Finally on its Way? we noted, however, that the majority of these and other new regulations only affect the top television markets, cable channels, and cable systems.
According to the Blindy.TV representative, "[These outlets] only have to produce four hours [of described programming] per week, while across the border in Canada they have an entire network that shows nothing but described programming, and in the UK they have to broadcast at least 10 percent of their programming with audio description." In actuality, the BBC exceeds this mandate, describing 20 percent of its content on BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, CBBC and CBeebies.
According to the Blindy.TV representative, Blindy.TV uses a considerable amount of UK-described TV. "[The UK] buy[s] a lot of syndicated American series, like Friends and Star Trek. Since they are going to broadcast each of these repeatedly during their contracted runs, it makes financial sense that these would be high on their priority list to narrate. I won't say it's the best audio description—British English and American English do have their differences, after all. But it is described TV, and without it our listeners usually can't even get these shows audio described."
While the BBC does not provide programming directly to Blindy.TV, they do know it's being used. According to the Blindy.TV representative: "We've met several of their representatives at various conferences, and mostly what they tell us is how sorry they feel for us here in the US because of our lack of described content."
According to Blindy.TV, there are many causes for the current state of described television in America.
Lack of Incentives for Increasing Audio Description
Most TV series have multiple points of origin. The program The Mentalist, for example, is a joint production of Primrose Hill Productions and Warner Bros. Television. The show is then distributed by Warner Bros. Television Distribution, which sells first run and certain rerun rights to CBS. Unfortunately, the Communications Act, as written, places the responsibility for providing audio description squarely on the TV network or major cable channel. The production company and distributor each have little to gain by adding audio description. Currently, the financial value of a TV property does not increase because it includes audio description. And since only 50 program hours per quarter are required to be described, the networks and cable channels can pick and choose what they send out to be narrated. Even if they want to add description to a program, it is not uncommon for a network to receive the final cut broadcast files mere days, even hours, before it hits the schedule, which leaves little time to arrange for narration.
Another issue restricting the availability of audio described programming is rights management. There are four different production companies listed in the credits for House of Cards. Netflix contracted to have the series described, and even though they are listed as a distributor, so is Sony Pictures Television. We can only guess at the legal entanglements that led to audio description being available only when viewed on Netflix and not when rented or purchased from iTunes or another vendor.
So even if a network does arrange for a program to include audio description, chances are you won't be able to access it when watching reruns on your local station, or on TNT, unless the cable network decides to have it redone because that would likely be less trouble and expense than negotiating with the distributor, who, in turn, would have to negotiate with the network.
Are you starting to feel like pounding your head against the wall in frustration?
A Problem of Knowledge
Netflix finally began offering audio description on all of its Netflix Originals and for other programs that have available audio description. "We shamed them into doing that," says the Blindy.TV representative. "We also got a lot of support from the general public when Netflix announced the release of Daredevil, since they were making a program about a blind superhero that the blind could not fully enjoy."
So far Hulu and Amazon Prime have not followed suit. "We need to keep up the pressure," the Blindy.TV representative says, "and not just on the networks, cable channels, and streaming services. We also need to educate and lobby the studios and production companies." Indeed, some of the problem may be a simple lack of knowledge: "If not all blind people even know audio description is possible, how many production and studio execs don't know either?"
The lack of audio description certainly isn't a matter of cost. The average hour-long drama costs less than $2,000 to narrate, which is less than many productions spend on a single day's catering bill. Turnaround time also isn't an insurmountable obstacle. According to the Blindy.TV representative, "We've spoken to the narration companies, [and] their writers and voiceover staffs. They tell us the more work they get, the more they can turn this into an assembly-line process and get the job done quickly." For proof, the representative points to Netflix. "Once they decided to offer audio description, it happened quickly. And it wasn't just for Daredevil—it was for their entire lineup of shows, and every episode."
The Communications Act is a start, but it's just that—a start. Network and cable channels are still only mandated to provide a few precious hours of described content per week, and streaming services such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video are not explicitly covered by the Act. Perhaps further legislation or judicial action will ultimately be required.
What are your thoughts? We'd love to hear them.
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