Opinion: Regulating audio description the only way

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Tuesday, 21 May 2013 10:02am

Australia is a long way behind the rest of the world when it comes to audio description on television. Media Access Australia CEO Alex Varley looks at the different approaches to regulating audio description and what conditions lead to across-the-board services around the world.

What is the state of audio description in the world?

There are many countries that now have regulations in place for audio description, including Italy, Poland, Spain, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Canada, France, Ireland, Portugal and the USA. However, most of these are for public channels only and Portugal has not implemented its requirements. Only five of the countries listed have some audio description (AD) on commercial channels. Poland and Spain have a handful of programs, whereas the UK, Canada and USA have a form of across-the-board service.

Others provide AD via special funding systems. The largest is Canada’s Access Channel provided by Accessible Media Inc. This is an open-described cable channel funded by a levy on all people subscribing to cable television. It has to be made available by all cable providers free-of-charge. New Zealand has a more conventional funding model whereby the audio description service is funded by NZ on Air (which also funds the captioning service) and it appears on TVNZ. 

What are the issues that affect the type of service?

The first is level of government support. This is both in terms of regulating AD as part of broadcasting license requirements and financial support to provide a service. As we will see in the four case studies of the UK, Italy, New Zealand and Australia, the scope of that support impacts in different ways.

The second is whether the country is a dubbing or subtitling country. This is especially relevant in Europe where imported programs (from English speaking countries) make up a significant portion of prime time viewing. If a country dubs those programs (revoices the soundtrack in its language), then there are less barriers to audio description as description can be provided in breaks in the dialogue. However, if the country provides on-screen subtitles and maintains the original soundtrack, the first preference for an audio service is to ’read out’ the subtitles so that they are accessible to the blind (called “audio-subtitling”).  This leaves far less scope for providing AD on foreign language programs.

The third issue is the strength of the public broadcasters in a country. In the UK, where the BBC is very dominant and leads the way in terms of accessibility, this has led to a flow on to commercial audio description. In other countries, such as Italy and France, the focus has been solely on providing AD on public channels.

Finally, the range of programming has an impact on what is described.  Live description is rare and usually reserved for significant national events, such as royal funerals. Similarly, the lack of non-dialogue time in news programs means that there is less likely to be description. The effect of this is that it skews the availability of description to drama, movies and other pre-recorded programs. With cable and subscription channels being genre-based, it means that many types of channel, such as sports and news channels, are exempted and this provides commercial arguments for why other subscription channels shouldn’t have to be described. 

Strong regulation in the UK

The UK has strong regulation made up of widespread quotas and proactive enforcement of those by the regulator, Ofcom. There is no regulatory differentiation between free-to-air and subscription channels, the quotas are based primarily around audience shares. In this environment there has been both an over compliance (audio describing more than the quota) and voluntary increases in the amount described (doubling or more). It is also noteworthy that the UK has equally strong captioning requirements.

Weak regulation in Italy

The Italian system reflects a more haphazard system of regulation. The AD requirements are for public broadcasters only and the programming consists of old movies and repeats. The delivery system is very cumbersome, requiring a double-audio channel.  This is where the description is delivered via the radio or online. This often results in poor audio quality and what is regarded as a generally poor overall service.

Public funding in New Zealand

New Zealand has decided that audio description is best funded via NZ on Air, a public funding system that also provides for captioning on free-to-air television. This was originally provided by TVNZ (one of the television operators) but this is now being moved to an independent entity. The net effect is that it takes pressure off commercial channels and subscription television as the expectation is that audio description is a public-funded service, rather than a license condition. Captioning is provided in a similar way, although some pressure was put on Sky NZ to pass through existing captions for some of its channels which originate in Australia.

A stalled service in Australia

The public broadcaster, the ABC, hosted a 13-week trial of audio description in the second half of 2012. This was funded by a one-off government grant. Whilst the trial was heralded as a success by the broadcaster and was very well received by the viewers, attempts to convince the ABC and the government to provide an ongoing service have not been successful so far. Amendments to the captioning provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act in 2012 set up the regulatory framework which makes adding in audio description relatively easily, but without the catalyst of a permanent service on the ABC, there is no compulsion for other channels to pick up audio description.

Regulation is an important step in ensuring that an audio description service becomes widespread and permanent. However, without strong government support, through both support of public broadcasters and a proactive regulator, the services can stall. It is disappointing to see many European countries exempting commercial services as this suggests that audio description is some kind of ’charity’ service. Interestingly the same attitude does not prevail as strongly with captioning for the Deaf and hearing impaired.  Perhaps this is linked to the size of the audience and the fact that captioning first started in the 1970s.

Australia has the pre-existing conditions to make for a high quality, widespread audio description service. The captioning regulations are strong, enshrined in legislation and apply across the board. Audio description could be slotted in alongside with relative ease.  However, the catalyst is not yet there. A false-start in the ABC trial has not been followed up with a more permanent arrangement which is essential to ensure that the Australian broadcasting industry quickly learns how to deliver audio description. Until that happens, Australia sits at the very bottom of the league table of world audio description and blind viewers continue to be treated as non-existent media consumers.

Alex Varley will present on this topic at the Roundtable on Information Access for People With Print Disabilities on Sunday 26 May.

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