M&E Journal: Audio Description: Television’s Talking Book

Veronika Hyks, BTI Studios

Audio description (AD) was once a concept known by very few in the TV and film industries, and practiced by even fewer. Today it is, if not the norm, certainly not unusual. Put simply, AD is a scripted narration that is woven into a television program or feature film to describe those aspects of a program that visually impaired people might miss.

That’s a large potential audience. While the precise level of demand is not known, according to the World Health Organization, 285 million people worldwide are estimated to be visually impaired.

AD may sound fairly straightforward. But in practice it can be a complex process, requiring a clearly defined workflow and a well-briefed writing team. It also requires a lot of sensitivity to do correctly.

That’s because the role of AD in a TV program or film is not to be the star of the show or distract the listener. AD should carry the plot along in an interesting, articulate but subtle way, allowing the dialog, sound effects and music to speak for themselves. An AD script and track must describe only what is essential, adding color and texture where relevant, and using language appropriate to the visual presentation.

A reasonable comparison might be a talking book, conjuring up pictures and characters, absorbing the listener in the subject or story. It is not a blow-by-blow description of every move and every gesture. Neither is audio description.

The origins and drivers of AD are well known. It was based on legislation that came about after a lengthy EU/ITV/BBC-funded research project concluded that AD should exist alongside subtitling and signing. A required percentage of hours when AD would be provided was agreed and all terrestrial TV channels were obliged to begin the service back in 1996-1999.

Since then, of course, satellite channels and film distributors have come on board with AD, although the percentages of output with AD vary depending on a channel’s viewing figures.

AD has a fairly strong presence in cinemas

In much of the developed world a number of showings of popular films also offer a headphone-delivered narration track. Warner, Disney and Sony are among companies that committed from an early stage to make AD available to viewers of their films.

Done properly, the AD process is fairly labor intensive, although it is certainly easier than it was in 1996. Once, the assets arrived in VHS format. Nowadays, more often than not, a program or film is uploaded to an FTP site, and downloaded onto a server.

Essentially AD is about writing a script. The person doing that job will access the server and, using software that allows for the keying in of in and out times, map out a description. Using film scripts, IMDB and other internet resources, the script is written. It is then checked for accuracy, style and coherence and will often also go to the distributor for review, and possibly further additions or recommendations. This is BTI Studios’ approach. AD is not a strongly developed industry and not all providers are this thorough.

Once a script has been approved, it is recorded using in-house software, by a voice talent. The recording is then checked again and sent to the master control room to be laid back, or mixed depending on the requirement.

However, the recording is increasingly not supplied by a human speaker. There have been some impressive developments in this area, driven by technological advances that can benefit broadcasters dealing with squeezed budgets.

There are now two versions of AD: one delivered by a human and a newer version, called synthesized AD. The advances in the latter are quite extraordinary. Yes, synthesized speech is easily identifiable as such: it’s slightly robotic and not as nuanced as human speech, but many of the companies that have sprung up to meet the demand for synthesized speech are refining the process and offering genuine variety and subtlety of accents and delivery.

Thus, due to a mix of legislation and broadcast initiatives, AD is a now a fact of broadcasting life. However, there is still a way to go with education and awareness when it comes to the AD process.

bti-journal For example, soap operas that probably don’t need much audio description may get an AD track, while complex or multi-layered dramas, whose visually impaired audience might be grateful for verbal support, may not.

Script quality varies. Of course there are bound to be subtle differences, specific to a language or nationality, which should be accommodated. U.K. and U.S. audio description scripts are not the same; this is even more the case for Italian, Hindi, Polish or Japanese audio description.

Ideally, Americans should script for the U.S., Italians for Italy and Japanese for Japan. However, at the moment, the U.K. is a leader in AD so at BTI Studios we find it is often more efficient to ask translators to work from one approved English script. As more nationalities embrace best practice for AD, however, this should change.

Meanwhile the technology driving AD is continuing to evolve. The UK charity the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and MovieReading, which supplies subtitling apps for hearing-impaired filmgoers, have harnessed new technologies to create an app that allows visually impaired audiences to play an AD track through their phones.

The MovieReading app ‘listens’ to the soundtrack of a film through a smartphone or tablet’s microphone. It then identifies the exact point in the film or TV program to sync the downloaded AD track.

All of this is technologically impressive. But what does access to AD mean to a member of the target audience? AD really enhanced the viewing experience for Stacy Rowe. She says: “As someone who is blind, I have often felt excluded from forms of entertainment that most people take for granted. Through audio description I am now able to follow story lines, identify characters, and immerse myself in spectacular scenery. Audio description gives color and character and allows me to fully enjoy the movie of my choice!”

Of course, audio description was driven by legislation, rather than markets. It is not a profit- making exercise. Nevertheless, it serves a real need that won’t be going away soon, will build brand loyalty among visually impaired viewers and is a valuable demonstration of good corporate social responsibility.

Meanwhile AD users, and of course charities like RNIB, continue to campaign for AD to be included throughout the distribution chain so that AD is added to video on demand and home video as well as theatrical platforms.

Service quality and audience requirements should be the drivers of AD, but more clearly defined regulations are equally important in guiding and supporting broadcasters who wish to understand their obligations. There are encouraging signs. New regulations have come in for AD provision in the U.S. VOD providers are catching on and providing AD on their services. Increasingly AD is being provided in other countries—BTI is producing AD in eight languages.

Our AD department continues to grow and technology will continue to support and enhance AD provision.

However, there may be still an argument for a basic set of agreed international standards and processes that could ensure quality but also encourage efficiencies and innovation. And a bit more collaboration with the people who use the service would also be welcome.

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