Bruce Maguire believes that the trial of audio description has been a long time coming: “Vision Australia has been lobbying hard for this trial of audio description for over four years now, so it's very encouraging that the Australian Government and the ABC have finally taken this important step.
"The feedback we have received from clients is overwhelmingly positive. One client told me about how he had lost his vision 30 years ago and hasn't watched television since then. With emotion in his voice, he told me that listening to the audio description has helped make him feel part of the world again.”
Maguire shared some feedback he had received from one of Vision Australia’s clients, and said it mirrored his own: “My own experience as a blind person is typical of the feedback we have received:
""I used to watch a lot of television when I was younger: there was a lot more dialogue back then, so it was much easier to follow what was happening onscreen. But culture generally has become much more visual, and television has both driven and responded to this trend. So, apart from a few current affairs programs and the occasional documentary, I haven't watched any television for over 25 years. Now I can watch it for 13 weeks, and I hope that those 13 weeks will just be the start.""
Vision Australia has been helping blind citizens around Australia enable audio description on their TVs and set top boxes where possible, including on the two talking set-top boxes available locally.
According to Maguire, Vision Australia has been co-ordinating feedback with the ABC throughout the trial so far, and a potential issue with the trial has already been raised: “From discussions with the ABC, we are aware that a few members of the public have been receiving the audio description even though they have not specifically enabled it. Some (mainly older model) TVs have audio description enabled by default, and in those cases all that is needed is to turn it off.
"However, there are some models of TV and set-top boxes that don't allow the audio-description feature to be turned off at all, and we are working with the ABC to provide a solution for people who are using one of these products who don't want to receive audio description.”
We have heard that some people are hearing the AD and not knowing what it is. That generally seems to be because their TV is set to AD by accident and they don’t know how to turn it off.
CEO of not-for-profit advocacy group Media Access Australia, Alex Varley, said he was also aware of the issue: “We have heard that some people are hearing the AD and not knowing what it is. That generally seems to be because their TV is set to AD by accident and they don’t know how to turn it off.”
Australia is trialing the same audio description broadcast method as the UK, and Varley says that model is a good one to follow: “The UK has a well-established service and is mandated. The regulator (Ofcom) has taken a very proactive role, and some of the channels have gone way beyond the quotas.
"The US rollout was hampered by litigation that basically put it back 10 years. I don’t think there is much of a positive environment for access as the broadcasters are fighting everything... there is also no mandating of standards, so there is a lot uncertainty as to which TVs will even pick it up.
"Australia is a bit behind, but the overall approach is following a UK model, which is the superior service.”
Varley praised the quality of the trial so far, which has seen programs like Grand Designs, Midsomer Murders, As Time Goes By and Doctor Who described: “We have heard only good things about the quality. The programming is mainly imported, but the suppliers are experienced at [audio description] and do a good service.”
The company mainly responsible for the audio description supplied to the ABC so far is the Australian arm of Red Bee Media. Red Bee Media has extensive experience working with Australian television broadcasters — it provides the closed captioning for SBS and the commercial television networks, and also provides translation services for SBS’ multicultural programming.
Adrian Chope, client liaison manager at Red Bee, said that it was responsible for around half the audio description currently being broadcast: “Our approach has been a combination of producing the audio description in-house, and bringing in files for programs which have already been described by our parent company.” Red Bee Media Australia either sources pre-recorded audio description audio files from its UK operation, obtains pre-written audio description scripts and records the files locally, or creates the entire audio description track from scratch.
Chope said that creating an audio description accompaniment from scratch was the most time-consuming aspect of the entire process, and that with recording, quality checking and re-checking “the whole process takes many times the length of the program.”
The ABC’s receiver-mix trial makes the process simpler for staff and consumers than the broadcast-mix used in New Zealand and the US, said Chope: “Creating receiver-mixed AD is a more straightforward process, as the audio description tracks remain separate from the main audio.”
Varley echoed these sentiments, saying that the receiver-mix method was both more versatile and a less involved process: “You can also control the volume of the description, and listen to via headphones... there are lots of TVs and boxes that can pick it up, including many that are already out there.
"With broadcast-mix you have to muck around with different soundtracks, and not all boxes and TVs receive it — this was the issue in NZ, where the broadcast mix service only works on Freeview boxes and some limited numbers of sets. It’s a lot more work.”