The 13-week trial of audio description running on the ABC has come to a close, with the service suspended until further notice as the government deliberates on its future.
In a media release today, Minister for Broadband Senator Stephen Conroy said the trial had prompted positive and negative feedback from involved parties and the general public: “This trial was the first test of audio description on Australian television, and I thank the ABC for conducting it for the Government.
“I would also like to thank those people with a vision impairment who participated in the trial, and those who have provided feedback to me and the ABC."
Conroy noted that the audio description trial was well-received by the blind and vision-impaired citizens at which it was aimed. Criticism of the trial has been also been noted, from over 1000 viewers whose regular viewing of ABC was disrupted in some way.
“It’s clear that audio description is a service that is strongly desired by the vision-impaired community, and the trial was embraced with real enthusiasm by participants. I share that enthusiasm for what new digital technologies can provide to enable improved access to television and other electronic media for people with a disability.
“However, there were significant technical concerns raised during the trial, with over 1000 complaints from viewers whose reception of ABC1 was disrupted because of the audio description broadcast.”
When the trial was officially launched on the 5th of August, some ABC viewers were quick to alert the station when they started receiving the audio description signal alongside regular audio and video. It soon became clear that some televisions and digital set-top boxes sold in Australia in the past had undisclosed audio description support built in, and on some models it could not be disabled.
CEO of Media Access Australia, Alex Varley, told PC World that viewers were largely unaware the audio description trial was running: “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.”
Policy and public affairs advisor at Vision Australia, Bruce Maguire, said that the organisation had been working with the ABC throughout the trial, to find a solution for viewers with TVs where audio description could not be disabled: "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.”
Because the government’s trial of audio description was meant to be an optional service, aimed only at vision-impaired citizens with a specific range of devices — including specialised talking set-top boxes — the government must consider the implications of the impact any future audio description service may have on viewers that have TVs with undisclosed, unwanted audio description support.
The ABC continues to collect feedback on the 13-week trial through its website until Wednesday 7th November. It will provide a report to the Department of Broadband before the end of the year, and the Department will then consider all aspects of the trial and lay out a plan for the service’s future: “The government will carefully consider the ABC’s report and looks forward to working cooperatively with all parties to address the issues raised.“