The Guardian (UK) Wednesday, April 05, 2006
By Ian Cook
When the BBC sent a blind TV director out on a shoot, it was hailed as a piece of political correctness gone mad. How could blind people make TV programmes, they don't even watch TV. Or do they?
The BBC's blind director might have been a one-off, but every day, large numbers of Britain's two million blind and partially sighted people sit in front of the TV - often with sighted family and friends - trying to make sense of programmes with varying degrees of success. Television can be a challenging experience if you're blind. It can also be distracting for sighted family and friends asked to provide commentary or explanation. On trips to the cinema it's even worse: imagine a trip to the pictures to see a film such as Casanova. The activities of the Italian stallion mean little if you can't actually see what is going on in the boudoirs of Venice.
Fortunately, Casanova is now among a growing number of films and TV programmes that are "audio described". This means a separate narration track is supplied, giving a brief outline of the action, scenery and other essential visual information in quiet moments between speech or sound effects.
Audio description is delivered via headphones in cinemas and a growing number of theatres, offered as a separate track on DVD and also available on a small but growing number of TV programmes via digital set-top boxes.
Not surprisingly, it has been enthusiastically received by many people in the UK who have sight problems. Typical of those using audio description is 17-year-old Harry Luckhurst, who lives with his parents and his brother Jamey. Harry is blind but, like most youngsters, enjoys TV - in particular soaps and action films.
Before the advent of audio description, members of the Luckhurst family had to describe things for Harry, with varying degrees of success. As dad Trevor recalls: "Imagine you have worked all day and just want to sit and relax in the evening in front of the TV. You are just dozing off, when Harry asks, 'What's happening, Dad?'.
"Audio description is a godsend. Harry can come home from school and 'watch' something on his own. It removes the need to describe everything that is happening in any programme, giving us more time to do other things that need doing in everyday life. Audio description is one of the best things to come into Harry's life. It has also made a big difference to us as parents. "
Another big fan is Mike Townsend, a trustee of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), who has been blind since childhood. Townsend was one of the first users of the Netgem I-Player AD, a Freeview box that can receive audio description. He says it has made an enormous difference to his life, and that where audio description works - as in programmes like Waking The Dead - it can make a real difference. In fact, he's such a fan that his main gripe is that so few programmes - just 8% on TV - are audio described. "I like to relax on a Sunday evening and put on Heartbeat, which is audio described. I would like Casualty but they don't do that, although strangely enough they often do Holby City. I sometimes wonder why this is," says Townsend.
It's a good question. RNIB would like to see far more programmes broadcast with audio description, but progress in rolling out the service seems slow. The TV target for audio description is set at 10% of programmes by the fifth year of the digital transmission start date of a channel, and although audio description is available on Sky and on Freeview, audio description on cable is only just beginning.
The situation in broadcasting is in sharp contrast to that in the film world, where 170 cinemas around the UK have an accessible screen delivering audio description through headphones, and around 80% of all major film releases are now audio described. Not surprisingly, there is a feeling that broadcasters are dragging their heels and lack enthusiasm. Leen Petré, head of broadcasting and talking images at RNIB, says that the charity wants to see 20% of TV programmes audio described by the 10th year of digital licences - not 10% as the system presently demands.
Dr Margaret Rogers is director of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey and programme director of the first MA programme in subtitling and audio description. A great enthusiast of audio description, she agrees that the number of audio-described TV programmes is small but warns that there is a need to ensure that audio description standards are maintained despite pressure for output to be produced "on the cheap" to meet targets. Programmes that are easy to audio describe, such as University Challenge, have been criticised by some blind people as not really adding much value for them.
Townsend's sighted wife, Edith, sees new possibilities for audio description. She thinks that it might catch on among sighted people once they realise how useful it is. So much so that she says she would consider using the audio description track when her husband isn't around. "Sewing or doing the ironing - something like that is perfect for audio description. It makes it like radio."
Dr Rogers goes further. "Sighted people who have watched a video or DVD with audio description have frequently said it told them things they would not have noticed with their own eyes."
Members of the Surrey team also think that audio description could have the potential to turn an audio-visual experience like watching a film into an audio product like a talking book or a radio drama - suitable for listening to in the car or on a portable stereo or maybe even a mobile phone.
Last year, RNIB held a special event at Vue West End cinema to mark 10 years of audio description. Although it was a celebration, the charity stressed that more still needs to be done.
Given the little-known fact that blind licence fee payers are expected to pay for a TV licence - 50% of the price paid by sighted viewers - it could be argued that audio description is, to use that hackneyed phrase, what they pay their licence fee for.
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