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Descriptive Video Service

The Descriptive Video Service (DVS) is a major United States producer of video description, which makes visual media, such as television programs, feature films and home videos, more accessible to people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired. DVS often is used to describe the product itself.


In 1985, PBS member television station WGBH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts, began investigating uses for the new technology of stereophonic television broadcasting, particularly multichannel television sound (MTS), which allowed for a third audio channel, called the Secondary Audio Program (SAP). With a history of developing closed captioning of programs for hearing-impaired viewers, WGBH considered the viability of using the new audio channel for narrated descriptions of key visual elements, much like those being done for live theatre in Washington, D.C., by Margaret Pfanstiehl, who had been experimenting with television description as part of her Washington Ear radio reading service.

After reviewing and conducting various studies, which found that blind and visually impaired people were consuming more television than ever but finding the activity problematic (often relying on sighted family and friends to describe for them), WGBH consulted more closely with Pfanstiehl and her husband, Cody, and then conducted its first tests of DVS in Boston in 1986. These tests (broadcasting to local groups of people of various ages and visual impairments) and further study were successful enough to merit a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to complete plans to establish the DVS organization permanently in 1988. After national testing, more feedback, more development of description technique, and additional grants, DVS became a regular feature of selected PBS programming in 1990.[1] Later, DVS became an available feature in some films and home videos, including DVDs.


DVS describers watch a program and write a script describing visual elements which are important in understanding what is occurring at the time and the plot as a whole. For example, in the opening credit sequence of the children's series Arthur on PBS, the description has been performed as follows:

"Arthur is an 8-year-old aardvark. He wears round glasses with thick frames over his big eyes. He has two round ears on top of his oval-shaped head. He wears red sneakers and blue jeans, with a yellow sweater over a white shirt."[2]

The length of descriptions and their placement by a producer into the program are largely dictated by what can fit in natural pauses in dialogue (other producers of description may have other priorities, such as synchronization with the timing of a described element's appearance, which differ from DVS's priority for detail).[3] Once recorded, placed and mixed with a copy of the original soundtrack, the DVS track is then "laid back" to the master tape on a separate audio track (for broadcast on the SAP) or to its own DVS master (for home video). For feature films, the descriptions are not mixed with the soundtrack, but kept separate as part of a DTS soundtrack.[4]

FCC involvementEdit

When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started establishing various requirements for broadcasters in larger markets to improve their accessibility to audiences with hearing and vision impairments[5], DVS branched out to non-PBS programming, and soon description could be heard on the SAP for shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Simpsons. However, a federal court ruled in 2002 that the Federal Communications Commission had exceeded its jurisdiction by requiring broadcasters in the top 25 markets to carry video description.

Since that time, the amount of new DVS television programming in the United States declined, as did access to information regarding upcoming described programming, while broadcasters like ABC and Fox instead decided to devote their SAP channels to Spanish language dubbing tracks of their shows rather than DVS due to the technical limitations of the analog NTSC standard. Description by DVS and other producers was still available in a limited form on television (the greatest percentage of DVS programming is still on PBS).[6] WGBH's Media Access Group continues supporting description of feature films (known as DVS Theatrical)[7] and DVS home videos/DVDs are available from WGBH as well as other vendors and libraries.[8] Commercial caption providers the National Captioning Institute and CaptionMax have also begun to describe programs. Benefit Media, Inc., a subsidiary of DuArt Film and Video in New York City provides DVS services to USA Network. For the 2016 Summer Olympics, NBC is providing description of events during the network's primetime block.[9]

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 reinstates the FCC's involvement in providing rules for video description. Under the rules, affiliates in the top 25 markets and the top five-rated cable networks will have to provide at least 50 hours of video described programming per quarter; the rules took effect on July 1, 2012.[10] However, this provision currently does not apply to syndicated programming; notably, many programs which have audio description in their network runs, such as those produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television, remove the DVS track for syndication, substituting in the Spanish dubbing track on SAP to reach more viewers, though as many stations affiliated with "netlets" like The CW and MyNetworkTV are not under the video description provision, do not have SAP channels and thus, neither an audio description or Spanish dub track can be heard. In some markets where SAP is activated on affiliate stations though, The CW does provide a Spanish SAP dub for Jane the Virgin and audio description is available and passed through for their Saturday morning One Magnificent Morning E/I block, which is done for all of the blocks produced for the major broadcast networks by Litton Entertainment. In 2019, the first primetime series with DVS for the network, In the Dark (which has a blind protagonist), was launched (the series' description propagated to its Netflix run several weeks after it was placed on that service after the first season finale). MyNetworkTV has no provisions for audio description or language dub tracks.

Online streaming services such as Hulu and the services of television networks themselves such as CBS All Access have yet to carry descriptive video service audio in most cases as they instead are currently focused on adding closed captioning to their libraries (the network app for ABC began to carry existing audio described shows in the fall of 2017). Netflix committed in April 2015 to begin audio description of their original series, starting with Daredevil (which features a blind protagonist with other heightened senses) and the remainder of their original programming in the next few months, making their goal in that timeframe, along with providing the DVS tracks of existing series in their library; however some platforms (mainly older versions for devices that are now unsupported) do not provide the alternate audio.[11]

ABC, along with sister network Disney Channel has since added audio description to some of their programming (with a commensurate decline in Spanish-dubbed programming, though the ATSC standard allows more audio channels), but does not contract any of their shows to be described by the Media Access Group, instead going with commercial providers CaptionMax and Audio Eyes, though some special programming such as Toy Story of Terror! and Toy Story That Time Forgot is described by the Media Access Group under existing contracts with Walt Disney Pictures. NBC and their associated cable networks, along with outside productions by Universal Television such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project, solely use CaptionMax for description services; Netflix also utilizes CaptionMax for their original series, while going per studio for acquired programming. Most scripted programming on Fox, except for the shows of Gordon Ramsay (Hell's Kitchen, Hotel Hell and Kitchen Nightmares) is described by the Media Access Group; Ramsay's programs are contracted by his producing studio to have audio description done by Scottish-born voiceover artist Mhairi Morrison with Descriptive Video Works. Unique to most described shows, Fox's Empire uses actress Adrienne Barbeau for their description. CBS's described shows all use the Media Access Group.

Some shows have lost their DVS during their original network runs due to outside factors or complications. For instance, American Dad! had a two-season interregnum in part of season 12 and all of season 13 without any DVS service during its move from Fox to TBS in late 2014, before it returned in November 2016 for its fourteenth season. The Mindy Project lost DVS at the start of their fourth season upon the move to Hulu, which does not yet provide DVS service. Cartoon Network and their time-share partner Adult Swim began to pass-through DVS for their syndicated content in the last quarter of 2018.

Regular U.S. series with DVS availableEdit


Adult Swim:


The CW:[12]

Disney Channel:[10][12][15]

  • Airs described programming on a specific schedule








  • Some movies



Turner Classic Movies:[12]

USA Network:[10][12][22]


  1. ^ The Development of the Descriptive Video Service
  2. ^ WGBH - Media Access Group - ABCs of DVS
  3. ^ About AudioVision
  4. ^ WGBH - Media Access Group - DVS FAQ
  5. ^
  6. ^ [1][permanent dead link]
  7. ^ MoPix – Motion Picture Access
  8. ^ WGBH - Media Access Group - DVS Home Video
  9. ^ "Comcast and NBC to Make the 2016 Summer Olympic Games Accessible to People with Vision Loss through Live Description". American Foundation for the Blind. Archived from the original on 8 August 2016. Retrieved 7 August 2016.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Networks Set to Launch Video Descriptions". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  11. ^ "Netflix Begins Audio Description for Visually Impaired" (Press release). Netflix corporate blog. 14 April 2015. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Audio Description (Video Description) on TV". The Audio Description Project. Retrieved August 24, 2012.
  13. ^ "Audio Description". Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  14. ^ "Closed Captioning Practices". CBS. Retrieved July 3, 2012.
  15. ^ "July Video Descriptive Episodes". Disney. Retrieved July 3, 2012.
  16. ^ "Fox Broadcasting Company Audio Description Schedule". Retrieved June 10, 2013.
  17. ^ "HISTORY Video Descriptive Show Schedule". A&E Networks. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  18. ^ "Schedule". Retrieved July 3, 2012.
  19. ^ "Nickelodeon Audio Described TV Schedule". Retrieved July 3, 2012.
  20. ^ "TV Schedule". Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  21. ^ "TNT DVS Schedule". Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  22. ^ "Accessibility at USA Network". Retrieved July 3, 2012.


  1. Cronin, Barry J. Ph.D. and Robertson King, Sharon, MA. "The Development of the Descriptive Video Service", Report for the National Center to Improve Practice. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  2. "The ABC's of DVS", WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  3. "Our Inclusive Approach", AudioVision. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  4. DVS FAQ, WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  5. "Media Access Guide Volume 3", WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  6. "ACB Statement on Video Description" American Council for the Blind Legislative Seminar 2006, February 1, 2006. Retrieved from Audio Description International on July 30, 2007.
  7. List of PBS series with DVS, August 2007[permanent dead link], WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  8. Homepage, MoPix. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  9. "DVS Home Video" WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.

External linksEdit