Blind and partially sighted people watch television and use a range of audiovisual media services, just like anyone else. However, in order to be able to do so, they need, amongst other things, for these services to have audio description available. What is audio description, you may well ask? In simple terms it is the spoken narrative describing the visual action. It is an extra narrative that's mixed in with the original soundtrack. In the gaps between the existing dialogue and sound effects, someone describes the important visual action taking place on screen. It can also be more detailed, and this is then known as extended audio description. This is similar, but it means that more detailed descriptions can be provided. Sometimes the spaces between the dialogue and sound effects aren't long enough to describe what's happening on screen. Extended audio description pauses the video to allow time for a more detailed description to be given. When the description is done, the video resumes playing.
Blind and partially sighted people benefit most clearly from audio description. A good audio described soundtrack will describe characters, scene changes, and on screen text. People with cognitive disabilities might also find this information helps them process visual content more easily. If, as a sighted person you want to get an idea of why this is important, the next time you watch television, try closing your eyes for a while. Attempt to keep track of who's talking, and what's going on. That is what audio description provides.
Audio description can also be extended to take in, for example, live commentary at sporting events. In the UK, cricket spectators at Lord's Cricket Ground are able to follow every ball bowled and every boundary scored through the dedicated Ball by Ball commentary service at the ground and concerning football, and recently the UEFA has implemented an Audio-Description Commentary (ADC) service for blind and partially sighted fans at UEFA EURO 2016, aiming to leave a legacy and improve access to football. Throughout UEFA EURO 2016 fans can either use their own radio to tune into the FM frequencies, or ask a EURO volunteer at the stadium to borrow one of the headsets made available for the occasion. In a similar vein, the French Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted (FAF), has trained a number of commentators to provide live commentary of the Euro 2016 football tournament matches which took place throughout France.
For the most part, however when we speak of audio description it refers to the use of technology to enable blind and partially sighted user to have the same access to audio visual content as their sighted peers. For an overview of what is available in the UK, the RNIB website can be consulted, and innovative services, such as an audio description app allowing users to download Audio Description tracks using their Smartphones and tablets have been tested and are operational.
Let's now look at the current state of play.
A few years ago EBU submitted evidence and comments to inform the legislative process which devised the AVMS (audiovisual media services) Directive. Unfortunately, the AVMS Directive contained “soft”, non-binding wording, stating that: “Member States shall encourage media service providers under their jurisdiction to ensure that their services are gradually made accessible to people with a visual or hearing disability”. EBU was convinced at the time that this wording would be too weak to significantly improve the level of accessibility of audiovisual media services, and so it has proved. The UK, for example, introduced binding legislation and this ensured much higher levels of audio description and subtitles than in EU Member States which lack such legal requirements. This, we should remind you, in spite of the fact that the EU and almost all of its Member States have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Denying access to TV and on-demand content means discrimination on the basis of article 30 of that Convention.
Also, contrary to a commonly-held misconception, audio description is not expensive. The costs for making a programme accessible, (such as adding audio description or subtitles) do exist but they are often small. A requirement to do so in the UK for all main channels has not resulted in catastrophe for them. It has resulted in much more audio description and subtitling.
The Commission's own assessment of accessibility of broadcasts, which it carried out for the revision of the AVMS directive addresses both availability and cost of these services:
"The availability of access services for the visually impaired is much lower" (than for subtitles). "The average volumes broadcasted with audio description range between 4% and 11%. Some Member States such as the Netherlands or Finland do not provide any audio description, while other Member States such as Slovakia (from 7 to 10 % of overall programmes) and UK (15 to 24 %) do."
"At Member State level, national law has generated varying degrees of compliance costs. For TV broadcasting, the yearly costs of providing accessibility services represent less than 0.1 % of large broadcasters' revenues. To the same extent, for TV channels of major broadcasters, the additional production costs of subtitles usually make up less than 1% of the production budget for the programme itself"
We do need a level legal playing field so that no economic operator has a competitive disadvantage. The "Niche" broadcasters can have up to 25-30% costs to provide access services. So the law may not make these accessibility requirements on niche broadcasters, but that would be no excuse not to require the main broadcasters to ensure accessibility.
In 2015 EBU provided it's response to the European Commission Consultation audiovisual media services (AVMSD) 'A media framework for the 21st century', with the aim of rectifying the situation whereby, in many EU Member States, the level of “access services” such as audio description and subtitles is far too low and people with a hearing or sight impairment are effectively excluded from much of the audiovisual content that others can enjoy. As part of this response EBU offered examples of the situation today in EU Member States.
What needs to be done? What can EBU members do?
The European Commission published its proposed revision of the audiovisual media services (AVMS) directive revision on 25th May and wants to delete the rules on accessibility in Article 7.
The Commission's reasoning for deleting Article 7 is that the European Accessibility Act will provide stronger requirements on accessibility than the AVMSD did, so there is no point in the AVMSD keeping Article 7.
The problem for EBU is that whilst Article 7 is weak, without it we would have no reference to accessible media in EU law, until- perhaps well into the future or never, once / if the EAA became law. What is more the culture committee of the European Parliament issued an opinion in early May proposing to exclude audiovisual services from the scope of the EAA, which means that AVMS will appear nowhere in EU legislation. We need a stronger Art. 7 in the revised directive and need to make sure audiovisual media services remain in the scope of the EAA. The long-awaited and much-demanded European Accessibility Act would complement - not replace - sector-specific accessibility requirements in EU law, such as those in the AVMS directive. It adds clarity to what “accessibility” means to a level of detail that cannot be expected of the AVMS directive. It also has a broader reach- so for instance it could seamlessly cover both the accessibility of broadcasting AND that of AVMS equipment with the same level of accessibility requirements. In that way it will create a clear, single set of requirements and avoid fragmentation and confusion.
EBU calls upon the European Commission to coordinate an effective mechanism to monitor the implementation of future accessibility provisions, facilitate cooperation among national authorities and media providers, and involve users' organisations, including organisations representing persons with disabilities.
EBU will remain vigilant on all developments in this area and encourages its members to lobby their own governments to introduce binding legislation, as, if our wishes come true, the EU, brexit or no brexit, will end up obliging them to do so.
Further reading - useful links
Adlab, an EU-funded project on audiodescription (AD) with the aim of funding HEI courses to train AD specialists and to design reliable and consistent guidelines for the practice of AD.
Information page on the above mentioned AD app