A man walks into a bar.
Or is it a restaurant? Maybe it’s a train station. Or it could be a hospital and the man is actually a woman.
This is the process each of Australia’s 600,000 blind and vision impaired people go through when they watch TV. Dialogue, music and sound effects go a long way to tell a story. But without knowing what’s on screen, watching TV becomes a guessing game.
That’s where audio description (AD) comes in. AD is a track of narration which describes important visual elements of a TV show, movie or performance. It’s delivered between lines of dialogue and means that those who are blind or vision impaired can switch it on to keep up with the action without relying on other people to fill them in.
AD is widely available on TV in the UK, USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. Audio described movies are available at 74 cinemas across Australia and on almost half of all new release DVDs sold. Yet Australian TV falls far behind.
In August, the ABC began a trial to test if AD could be delivered on its airwaves. For a few hours each night on ABC1, blind and vision impaired Australians can enjoy TV too. But on November 4 the signal is being switched off.
Lauren Henley from Blind Citizens Australia is spearheading a campaign to keep audio description on ABC1. “I have rarely sat down to enjoy a television program since becoming blind,” she said. “It’s too hard to follow what’s happening and it just leaves me feeling frustrated.”
“When I accessed the audio description service for the first time I was surrounded by friends who are also blind or vision impaired… It was fantastic to be able to collectively enjoy a program that was also being viewed by thousands of sighted people around the country, without missing out on vital information and without needing someone sighted to describe things. It gave me a true sense of empowerment and independence.”
Legal drama Rake received the honour of being the first Australian show to be broadcast with AD. Henley found that this was the best example of the “phenomenal” description that’s been delivered so far.
As the program’s soundtrack offers banging, crashing and paper shuffling, the audio description gives an explanation:
Cleaver turns his apartment upside down as he frantically searches for something. He pulls pictures off the wall, and rummages through piles of books. He searches through his clothes and looks under the bed.
Deluxe Australia through its media access division, Captioning and Subtitling International (CSI) is one of two companies providing AD for the ABC’s trial. It’s an extensive process involving writers, editors and voicers. Everyone involved so far has a background in captioning and becoming audio describers has let head writer Sharmishta Sarkar and head voicer Carmel Sealey release their creative side. It’s a delicate art.
There are a number of challenges: making sure you’re not repetitive, making sure you can fit it in between dialogue, making sure the emotion of the scene is portrayed in the delivery as well as the script.
“We have to be very careful that we don’t interpret those actions,” said Sarkar. “It’s basically allowing the blind person to interpret for himself or herself. What you see is what you say.”
During the transformation from captioners to audio describers, Sarkar and Sealey were set the challenge to come up with as many ways as possible to phrase “a man walks into the room”. Using words such as “stumbles”, “leaps” and “breaks into”, Sealey came up with 127. Sarkar reached 60.
“Carmel’s a natural,” said Michelle Kwan who is directing the trial for CSI. “Carmel has a neutral Aussie voice. It’s very clear. She can throw tone in to it as well. Some voicers just read, Carmel doesn’t just read. You want to feel like the voicer is sitting next to you at home in the lounge room, not someone who’s reading a book next to you.”
“When there’s romance you don’t want to say it too dispassionately because it kills the mood,” said Sealey.
Describers have to say what they see, and that includes all the sex and violence that Australian drama is famous for. For Sarkar, nothing has posed such a challenge as writing for The Slap. One scene in particular many readers will surely remember. In Episode Four, Connie, Hector drives the babysitter home.
“When I first saw the scene I thought ‘oh god, how are they going to be able to get around this?’” said Kwan.
But Sarkar found a way. “I can’t sound salacious. I can’t say he’s doing whatever he’s doing. So I had to work around it and say he’s got his hands through her unzipped jeans. Then his fingers wriggle in and out… of the jeans.”
But that’s Australian drama. The ABC sets itself the task of making and broadcasting programs that push the boundaries. The Australian content in the AD trial includes the criminal drama Jack Irish, Lowdown, the comedy set in a tabloid paper, and the comedy that makes describers squirm Summer Heights High. The ABC tells Australian stories with an Australian voice. And CSI are in the privileged position of setting the standard for what Australian audio description sounds like.
Henley, who has been listening to audio description imported from the UK and USA for years, had her doubts. “I didn’t think locally produced content would be able to meet the same standard. But I’ve been really impressed with the level of detail provided and I think the Australian describers have done a fantastic job.”
This opinion is shared by Geoff Cousins, who oversees audio described content for the ABC.
“All programs require sympathetic treatment, such as the gender or accent of the voice over, to ensure the commentary subtly complements the program rather than overwhelm the viewer,” said Cousins.
The trial has clearly been a success, both for those producing it and the many thousands of people tuning in each night. The only downside is that it’s a trial – and it’s due to end on November 4. The question everyone is now asking is when will this service become a regular feature on Australian TV?
This article was republished on the ABC's disability gateway, Ramp Up where readers can post comments.
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