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Audio description

Audio description, also referred to as a video description, described video, or more precisely called a visual description, is a form of narration used to provide information surrounding key visual elements in a media work (such as a film or television program, or theatrical performance) for the benefit of blind and visually impaired consumers. These narrations are typically placed during natural pauses in the audio, and sometimes during dialogue if deemed necessary.[1]

In museums or visual art exhibitions, audio described tours (or universally designed tours that include description or the augmentation of existing recorded programs on audio- or videotape), are used to provide access to visitors who are blind or have low vision. Docents or tour guides can be trained to employ audio description in their presentations.[not verified in body]

In film and television, description is typically delivered via a secondary audio track. In North America, Second audio program (SAP) is typically used to deliver audio description by television broadcasters. To promote accessibility, some countries (such as Canada and the United States) have implemented requirements for broadcasters to air specific quotas of programming containing audio description.


Silent films could naturally be enjoyed by the deaf due to the lack of spoken dialogue or sound whatsoever. The transition to "talkies" in the late 1920s displaced this audience, but resulted in a push to make them accessible to the visually impaired. The New York Times documented the "first talking picture ever shown especially for the blind" — a 1929 screening of Bulldog Drummond attended by members of the New York Association for the Blind and New York League for the Hard of Hearing, which offered a live description for the visually-impaired portion of the audience.[2] In the 1940s and 1950s, Radio Nacional de España aired live audio simulcasts of films from cinemas with descriptions, framing these as a form of radio drama before the advent of television.[2]

In the 1980s, the Media Access Group of U.S. public television station WGBH-TV (which had already gained notability for their involvement in developing closed captioning)[3] developed an implementation of audio description for television programming via second audio program (SAP), which it branded as "Descriptive Video Service" (DVS). It was developed in consultation with Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl of Washington, D.C., who had performed descriptions at theatrical performances and had run a radio reading service known as the Washington Ear. After four years of development and on-air trials (which included a proof of concept that aired the descriptions on a radio station in simulcast with the television airing), WGBH officially launched audio description via 32 participating PBS member stations, beginning with the new season of American Playhouse on January 24, 1990.[4][5][2]

In the 1990s at cinemas in California, RP International began to offer audio descriptions for theatrical films under the brand TheatreVision, relayed via earpieces to those who request it. A clip from Schindler's List was used to pitch the concept to the film's producers Gerald Molen and Branko Lustig, and one of the first films to be presented in this format was Forrest Gump (1994). TheatreVision sought notable personalities and celebrities to volunteer in providing these narrations, such as sportscaster Vin Scully, William Shatner, Monty Hall, and former U.S. president George H. W. Bush (for It's a Wonderful Life). Sometimes the narrator had ties to the film or was part of its cast; Irene Bedard described Pocahontas—a film where she had voiced the title character, and for the 1994 remake of Little Women, stars from previous versions of the film volunteered, including June Allyson, Margaret O'Brien, and Janet Leigh (whose grandmother was blind) from the 1949 version of the film, as well as Katharine Hepburn—star of the 1933 version.[6][7] Other companies emerged in providing descriptions for programming in the U.S., including the National Captioning Institute, Narrative Television Network, and others.[7]

In 2000, the BBC voluntarily committed to providing descriptions for at least 20% of its programming annually. In practice, the BBC has often exceeded these targets. In 2009, BBC iPlayer became the first streaming video on-demand service in the country to support AD.[8][9][10][11] On January 29, 2009, The Accessible Channel was launched in Canada, which broadcasts "open" audio descriptions on all programming via the primary audio track.[12][13] Audio description has also been extended to live events, including sporting events, the ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, among others.[14][15][16]

In April 2015, the subscription streaming service Netflix announced that it had added support for audio description, beginning with Daredevil—a series based on a comic book character who himself is blind, and would add descriptions to current and past original series on the platform over time.[17][18] The following year, as part of a settlement with the American Council of the Blind, Netflix agreed to provide descriptions for its original series within 30 days of their premiere, and add screen reader support and the ability to browse content by availability of descriptions.[19]

On June 17, 2016, Pornhub announced that it would launch a collection of pornographic videos with audio descriptions. The initiative is sponsored by the website's philanthropic arm Pornhub Cares.[20]

Legal mandates in television broadcastingEdit


Under CRTC rules, broadcast television stations and former Category A services that dedicated more than half of their programming to comedy, drama, or long-form documentary programs, were required to broadcast at least four hours of programming with audio descriptions (known in Canadian English as described video) per-week, with two hours of this "original" to the channel per-week. These programs must have been drawn from children's, comedy, drama, long-form documentary, general entertainment and human interest, reality, or variety genres. Broadcasters must also promote the availability of DV programming, including airing a standard bumper and logo before programs offering description.[21][22] All television providers are also required to carry AMI-tv (formerly The Accessible Channel), a specialty channel that broadcasts all programming with descriptions on the primary audio track.[13]

As of September 1, 2019 under standard conditions of license, all broadcasters owned by vertically integrated conglomerates, as well as any channel previously subject to license conditions specifying minimums for DV, are now required to supply described video for any primetime programming (7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.) that falls within the aforementioned genres.[22] Citing the possibility that not enough imported U.S. programming may be supplied with descriptions for their first airing, and the burden this may place on their ability to carry these programs, Bell Media, Corus Entertainment, and Rogers Media proposed an amendment to exempt foreign programming that is received within 72 hours of its scheduled airing — provided that any future airings of the same program in primetime contain descriptions.[21]

United StatesEdit

Initially, audio description was provided as a public service. However, in 2000, the Federal Communications Commission would enact a policy effective April 1, 2002, requiring the affiliates of the four major television networks in the top 25 markets, and television providers with more than 50,000 subscribers via the top 5 cable networks as determined by Nielsen ratings, to offer 50 hours of programming with descriptions during primetime or children's programming per-quarter. However, the order faced a court challenge led by the MPAA, who questioned the FCC's jurisdiction on the matter. In November 2002, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC had no statutory jurisdiction to enforce such a rule.[23][24][25]

This was rectified in 2010 with the passing of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which gave the FCC jurisdiction to enforce video description requirements. The previously-intended quotas were reinstated on July 1, 2012, and have been gradually increased to require more programming and wider participation since their implementation.[26][27][28][29]


Broadcast audio description in the U.K. is delivered digital terrestrially on a separate track containing the narration only, making it possible to adjust the AD volume separately from that of the main audio track from the television programme before the receiver mixing is performed. However, on digital receivers that lack any kind of audio pre-mixing ability such as is the case with a number of digital satellite television or cable television or ATSC receivers, the AD track is provided with the narration already mixed in and has to be manually selected as either a SAP for ATSC or another language for DVB.

In movie theaters, audio description can be heard using DVS Theatrical and similar systems (including DTS-CSS and Dolby Screentalk). Users listen to the description on a wireless headset.[citation needed]

An audio describer working in a live theater. A small mixer and transmitter are visible, and the lit stage can be seen in the distance.

In live theaters, patrons also receive the description via a wireless device, a discreet monaural receiver. However, the description is provided live by describers located in a booth acoustically insulated from the audience, but from where they have a good view of the performance. They make their description which is fed to a small radio transmitter.[30]

Descriptions on video are typically delivered via an alternate audio track, either as a separate track containing the narration only (which, if the playback device is capable of doing so, is mixed with the primary audio track), or on a secondary audio track pre-mixed with the primary track, such as a secondary audio program (SAP).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Description Key for Educational Media". The Described and Captioned Media Program. November 4, 2008. Retrieved September 7, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Ellis, Katie (2019-02-01). Disability and Digital Television Cultures: Representation, Access, and Reception. Routledge. ISBN 9781317627845.
  3. ^ Ap (1985-12-28). "Closed-Captioning for Boston News". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  4. ^ Gibson, Gwen. "Words worth 1,000 pictures". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  5. ^ Molotsky, Irvin (1988-01-13). "New TV System Offers Descriptions for Blind". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  6. ^ Bandler, Michael J. "NEW VISION". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  7. ^ a b Post, Tracy L. Scott, The Washington. "Stars lend voices to assist blind viewers". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  8. ^ "The strange story of how deaf and blind viewers were left behind by the on-demand revolution". Radio Times. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  9. ^ "Audio description on BBC". RNIB. 2018-08-28. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  10. ^ 2019-01-31T12:52:00+00:00. "Where is TV audio description heading in 2019?". Broadcast. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  11. ^ "BBC iPlayer audio description is now available". BBC Internet Blog. BBC. August 27, 2009. Retrieved September 7, 2009.
  12. ^ Accessible Channel Launches with "Open Format'; Broadcaster Magazine; 2008-12-01
  13. ^ a b "Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2010-821". Canadian Radio-television and Communications Commission. Retrieved 9 June 2013.
  14. ^ "Three Blue Jays games to feature described video". MLB Advanced Media. Archived from the original on 2013-10-22. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
  15. ^ Tartaglione, Nancy (2012-07-26). "London Olympics Preview: Coverage Is "Hybrid Of Innovation And Tradition", But Will It Do The Job?". Deadline. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  16. ^ Moraes, Lisa de; Moraes, Lisa de (2015-12-02). "'The Wiz Live!' First Live Entertainment Show Accessible To Visually Disabled People". Deadline. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  17. ^ "Netflix makes a blind superhero accessible to blind audiences". Washington Post. Retrieved 9 January 2016.
  18. ^ "Netflix Adding Audio Description Tracks for Visually Impaired, Starting with 'Marvel's Daredevil'". Variety. Retrieved 9 January 2016.
  19. ^ Spangler, Todd (2016-04-14). "Netflix to Expand Audio Descriptions for Blind Subscribers". Variety. Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  20. ^ "Pornhub Is Making Audio Porn for the Visually Impaired". Vice. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  21. ^ a b "Call for comments on an amendment proposed by Bell Media Inc., Corus Entertainment Inc. and Rogers Media Inc. to their condition of licence that requires prime time programming to be broadcast with described video". CRTC. 2019-03-11. Retrieved 2019-04-24.
  22. ^ a b "Let's Talk TV - Navigating the Road Ahead - Making informed choices about television providers and improving accessibility to television programming". CRTC. 2015-03-26. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  23. ^ Martin, Harry C. "FCC Update: Video: description rules in place". TV Technology. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  24. ^ "Court Nixes FCC's Video Description". The Edwardsville Intelligencer. 2002-11-08. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  25. ^ McClintock, Pamela; McClintock, Pamela (2002-11-11). "Narration mandate mooted by court". Variety. Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  26. ^ "Networks Set To Launch Video Descriptions". TVNewsCheck. 2012-06-13. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  27. ^ Browne, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP-Maria T.; London, Ronald G.; Holl, Brendan. "FCC adopts video description regulations". Lexology. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  28. ^ Eggerton, John. "FCC Expands Video Description Mandate". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  29. ^ Wattles, Jackie (2017-07-12). "FCC to require more shows be aired with video descriptions to aid the blind". CNNMoney. Retrieved 2019-04-16.
  30. ^ "Enjoying theatre, museums, galleries and cinema". Australia: Vision Australia. Retrieved 10 December 2012.[permanent dead link]

Further readingEdit

  • Hirvonen, Maija: Multimodal Representation and Intermodal Similarity: Cues of Space in the Audio Description of Film. (Ph.D. thesis.) University of Helsinki, 2014. ISBN 978-951-51-0368-0. On-line version.

External linksEdit