The ABC has been trialing an ‘audio description’ service, providing narration for vision impaired citizens, on its ABC1 digital TV channel since the beginning of August.
The trial, which runs until October, broadcasts a second stream of audio alongside a digital TV program’s regular audio and vision. This second stream provides a running verbal commentary that complements the soundtrack of a television program, explaining what is happening on-screen.
Audio description reveals ‘sight gags’, settings, costumes, facial expressions, and scenes that would otherwise not be obvious to a viewer who is blind or has a vision impairment. The audio description narration is delivered during gaps in programs’ dialogue.
The ABC’s trial was launched on Sunday 5 August, with blindness and low vision advocacy organisation Vision Australia holding a pizza and television party to celebrate. Policy and public affairs advisor at Vision Australia, Bruce Maguire, told PC World the service would make a big difference socially: "Over the years, television programs have become more and more visual and people who are blind, like me, often miss out on vital information because we can't see the pictures.
"The trial will enable hundreds of Australians who are blind to join their sighted counterparts in discussions about what was on TV last night. It will make a big difference socially.”
"Over the years, television programs have become more and more visual and people who are blind, like me, often miss out"
According to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, the ABC1 trial broadcast of audio description is available wherever the station is broadcast over terrestrial free-to-air television.
Audio description services have been available internationally for some time — the US requires a minimum of four hours per week on its major channels, and UK broadcasters meet or exceed a minimum 10 per cent commitment to audio description. Many locally-available DVDs include an optional audio description track.
Audio description requires a television or set-top box that is capable of picking up the secondary audio stream and mixing it into regular audio — Australian testing is using this ‘receiver-mix’ method, where some nations like New Zealand and the US use a ‘broadcast-mix’ method that includes audio description in regular broadcast audio. Many current and recent televisions support audio description, but information about individual models and the procedures required to enable audio description is scarce.
In February, a spokesperson for the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy told PC World that the trial broadcasts would be used to gather viewer feedback: “The purpose of the technical trial is to identify technical and consumer issues associated with establishing and delivering AD services in Australia.”
While the Department does not know how many audio description-capable TVs and set-top boxes have been sold in Australia — the feature has been mandatory in models sold in Europe for several years, and many older products include unadvertised audio description capability — it has been distributing audio description-capable set-top boxes to vision impaired citizens as part of the digital TV switchover Household Assistance Scheme. As of February, over 32,000 audio description-capable ‘talking’ set-top boxes had been installed in eligible homes around Australia.
In March, government-contracted consultant Australian Digital Testing delivered a report on compatible TVs and set-top boxes. The report listed a wide range of major brands' TVs as being audio description-capable. The Department’s spokesperson told PC World that “alongside accessible user guides, this list will assist people considering participation in the trial identify whether their existing televisions or set-top boxes will be able to receive the audio-described content.”
The ADT’s report notes that many of the products listed are able to enable and disable audio description with a single button on the remote control, allowing it to be turned on and off in a household where not all viewers may want the service. Some TVs listed require a several-step process through TVs’ menus, which are not accessible to a blind user.
The Department spokesperson said that it was awaiting a report from the ABC at the conclusion of the audio description trial, and that feedback from consumers — given over a toll-free number or at the ABC’s website — would be included. Although the trial is only being conducted over the free-to-air ABC1 channel, the process “will inform government’s consideration of the future viability of audio description on all platforms”, including Foxtel and satellite TV broadcasts to regional Australia.
According to a spokesperson for Panasonic Australia, the full range of Panasonic TVs from 2011 and 2012 support audio description. A representative of Sony Australia said all its BRAVIA TVs from 2010, 2011 and 2012 were audio description enabled, but its digital TV recorders were not. An LG spokesperson was not aware of any audio description support for its TVs or recorders. Representatives of Sharp and Toshiba did not respond by the time of publication.
A guide of programs that are being broadcast with accompanying audio description is available on the ABC’s website. Around two hours of programs per night are audio description-enabled, with programming running between 5PM and midnight.