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Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

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A boy's hand aims a remote control towards the television.

I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with television. And, for 20 years now, video description has hung like a shadow over this relationship.

I grew up on the great classic comedies of the 1970s: "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "M.A.S.H." I spent far too many summer vacation hours lazily watching programs from "Love Boat" to gameshows. I later adopted sitcoms like "Cheers" and "The Cosby Show," along with a sprinkling of a few medical and legal dramas. In other words, I was a pretty typical American TV watcher.

Yet, there was always a disappointing aspect to TV programs (okay, there are many in fact, but that's another story). There was always the question: "What’s going on?" And too often, there wasn't anyone willing or able to answer it for me. After all, as a blind person, I missed the visual information these programs presented: telltale facial expressions, audience laughter not triggered by dialogue, the silent entrance of a new character and, of course, the complete shift of setting. These, and many other aspects about television, are confounding to people who cannot see the screen (or who cannot see it very well).

As a consequence, I have what may be unhealthy love for the work of Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter whose shows from "Sports Night," to "West Wing," to "Studio 60" were heavily dialogue-driven. These days, I find very little TV that I want to watch, and I'm mostly snarling at my teenage and young-adult daughters about their TV viewing choices (typical parent, I guess).

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, WGBH brought us its Descriptive Video Service (DVS), which brought movies and some public television shows to life. For me, and as importantly, my sighted family, DVS was a blessing, providing much more information about movies and shows, thereby relieving my family of the pressure to provide haphazard description.

Also during the early 90s, closed captioning was beginning to take off, providing access for people who are deaf or have hearing loss. Disability advocates (yours truly among them) began pushing for a law to require TV programs to be captioned and described. In 1996, Communications Act amendments were passed, bringing us Section 255, which required telecommunications access, but also Section 713, which required captioning of TV programs. Advocates tried hard at that time to get description required as well, but representatives of the television industry strenuously objected to description; apparently captioning would be accepted as a requirement, but description would not.

Nonetheless, the 1996 Act did require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to study description, and in 2000 the agency announced that it would require the broadcast networks as well as the largest nonbroadcast networks (generally this means cable networks), to provide 50 hours per quarter of programming with video description. The FCC believed it had the authority to require what amounts to a "pilot" effort of this sort. So, in April 2002, the requirement went into effect, and several networks started airing programs with description. However, the TV industry asked the courts to overturn the FCC requirement. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed, and tossed out the requirement.

Since that time, AFB and other advocates have worked to "reinstate" those minimal requirements, and we were finally successful in the Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. So, that is how we ended up with this small but important step being taken now (as of July 2012) by the broadcast and top nonbroadcast TV networks to provide approximately four hours per week (50 hours per calendar quarter) of programs with video description.

So now what?

The two big, immediate challenges for television viewers with vision loss are to figure out which programs have description, and how to set their TVs to receive it. For information about programs, the best source right now is the FCC's video description page, which includes many resources and lists of programs that networks have indicated they are planning to provide with description. As for how to set the TV to get the description track, here's the information we've compiled. As we learn more, we'll fill in details.

If the programs you want aren't described, let the networks know you'd like them to be described. If you aren't able to receive the description track, contact your TV provider or broadcast station.

Personally, I'm curious about ABC's "Modern Family," and NBC's "The Office," which are now supposed to be described. In fact, I used to watch "The Office," but got tired of trying to follow the constant scene changes and weird switching between monologues and dialogue.

I'm definitely not the best person to tell you to watch more TV, but I suspect many of you, like most Americans, already watch a decent amount. I hope you will take a look at some of the programs that are to be described, and I hope you will let the networks know that you'd like to see more described programming. That's something we can all tune into.

We'll discuss description more in future posts. Meanwhile, let us know about your experiences with description in the comments.

Hand pointing remote at television photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Video Description
Personal Reflections
There are currently 9 comments

Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

I am in St. Louis, MO which is 21st in the list of TV markets so the TV stations here are covered by the new law. Since July 1 I have been checking all the channels that are required to provide description and so far all but NBC are now airing some shows with Video Description. It's still difficult to find what shows are described but I hope that the listings will soon indicate which programs are described like they now do with Closed Captioning.

I'm very glad to see this blog post, as it seems that I am one of the very few that have been anxiously awaiting the return of Video Description. It still seems to be a very well kept secret.

Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

Tribune Media Services is providing information about which programs include audio description. This can be obtained directly via Zap2It which is available in accessible format via NFB Newsline. The listing seems to be reporting based on the program rather than the station. For example, if one PBS station passes through the DVS for Arthur but another doesn't, audio description will be listed for airings on both stations. This seems to be true for stations which do not include audio description but air a program for which it has been provided in the past. As you may know, finding accessible TV listings is a challenge in itself. I know the TV Guide iOS app is accessible but it did seem cumbersome to navigate and as of yet I haven't checked to see if audio description information is being provided in the listings. Accessing audio description has been a challenge for me ever since I converted to digital cable. Customer servic representatives and even providers which have centers for customers with disabilities seem to have no information about how to access the secondary audio feed or which set top boxes provide top-level access to the feature and how to obtain these models, or how to report a problem if the SAP isn't being passed through. This makes it problematic to be able to file a complaint with the FCC if the viewer is unable to confirm whether the DVS is even being passed through by the provider. I am switching over to Verizon FiOS for TV service partly because of the problems I have experienced making headway with Comcast making headway in gaining access to the SAP feed and confirming that my local distributor is passing it through. I have contacted Verizon via Twitter and their community forum to try to identify a contact or mechanism for resolving video description issues. I am just as eager to enjoy the mandated video described content as the rest of the top 25 markets in the nation.

Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

I am so pleased to hear so many people are enthusiastic about desription on TV programs. Unfortunately, we will continue to experience challenges such as poor or missing audio, difficulty finding the channel, and, of course, problems finding anyone to talk to at the TV stations or cable/satellite providers. We will need to find ways to make sure the program networks and TV stations and providers hear from us. We'll try to see if we can help by identifying contact information, and we should ask the FCC to require the stations, providers and networks to identify a "point of contact" for description like they are required to do for captioning.
Also, remember that all stations and providers are supposed to "pass-through" description, so TV viewers in smaller communities should also have access, though stations and systems can ask for an exemption.
And, I think Comcast is developing an interim solution for easily finding the audio channel with description.

Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship


Tom Wlodkowski here. Some readers may remember me from my past lives -- as director of accessibility at AOL for the past ten years and at the WGBH Media Access Group prior to AOL. So, why is this introduction relevant to video description? Read on.

I'm writing in response to a comment posted yesterday that referenced Comcast. On June 11, I joined Comcast as Vice President of product accessibility. My responsibilities include advancing usability of Comcast products and services, driving adoption of specific features or policies (customer service, etc.) of interest to the disability community and managing compliance with the Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA). Video description is very important to me, both as a consumer and as part of my new position here at Comcast.

If you are a Comcast customer and are having trouble accessing the SAP channel on your settop box, I want to hear from you. I'm looking for some customers to try a device that has a dedicated button on the remote for toggling between the default program and SAP audio streams. Please send me an email with your contact information and a good time to reach you. My email address is

I look forward to hearing from you.

Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

Hello. I think Comcast is developing an interim solution for easily finding the audio channel with description.

Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

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Re: Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship

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