TechShare Pro 2019: Apple, Netflix and Amazon lead the way in audio description

At AbilityNet's sold out accessibility and technology event TechShare Pro 2019, delegates heard from top TV industry accessibility experts based in the UK and US about improvements to audio description in 2019 and 2020. 

There’s now a generation of people with sight loss which has grown up with audio description on many of their favourite TV shows. They generally expect to find an AD soundtrack available. An increasing number of big cinema releases, such as the latest Star Wars film: The Rise of Sky Walker, for example also come with audio description (AD) now as standard. Just 15 years ago, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was the first cinematic release with AD.

But the UK is a long way from offering the same amount of AD as subtitles. Captions and subtitles can be found on almost 100% of films and shows now. Whereas AD - which provides a voice over track of important detail about what’s happening on screen - is currently only available on about 20-30% of programming in the UK.

Broadcasting regulations currently state that 10-20% of programming on linear (traditional) TV should have AD, with no minimum for Video On Demand (VOD) / Catch Up services.

In this video, RNIB has interviewed blind and partially sighted people about why Audio Description is so important to them...


Increasing the amount of audio description on UK televisionColour photo of Sonali Rai, RNIB

At TechShare Pro 2019 (TSP 2019), delegates found out how the UK’s main sight loss charity, RNIB, is working with the TV and film industry to increase the amount of AD in the UK.

Sonali Rai, audio description manager for RNIB, leading the AD panel at the event, said that people with sight loss want more AD and more consistently available AD across different devices and platforms. This is both with linear and VOD TV.

Rai said: “There is a generation of viewers now who have grown up with audio description. They are not grateful for having description, but if it's not there, they're very angry. They have platforms to express their disappointment. It's #furious.”

She added that audiences also expect very high quality sound options for their AD, such as Dolby Atmos mix (top level surround sound). They are not satisfied with the lower quality voice-over provided by some outlets.

Improvements in audio description

Rai also praised the industry for its efforts on AD. “A lot of media providers are understanding the importance of audio description.  A lot of improvements have been made,” she told delegates. 

“According to the Ofcom Access Services Report of 2018, about 25% of content was broadcast with audio description on TV in the UK. The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are leading the way on their streaming services in addition to linear broadcast… What is helping immensely is that the user group is more vocal now than ever before. The recent Ofcom report shows remarkable progress on ITV Hub and All4.” 

US advances in audio description encourages UK broadcasters

Rai also believes that UK TV channels are being spurred on by the rise of AD on television shows made in the US. Speaking to AbilityNet, she explained: “There is significantly more audio described content online with services like Netflix and Apple (TV Plus) providing access tracks across most, if not all, of their original content. There’s also serious effort being made by the folks at Prime Video (Amazon)."

But at the TSP 2019 event held at Google headquarters in London, UK TV companies spoke about the complications of providing AD across numerous different devices and platforms.

Nigel Megitt, executive product manager of the BBC, echoed his comments from last year’s at TechShare Pro. He said the BBC is providing more AD than is legally required. But said that producing AD is currently complicated and expensive. He hopes to see global standards for AD coming in the next couple of years. This, he believes, will make the process more cost effective, efficient and in turn more widely used.

Colour photo of BBC iplayer screen highlighting the AD buttonWhat’s needed he said is an “open standard file format for exchange of audio description to take place - to go all the way through the work flow from descripting the text that's going to be spoken, to mixing the audio or presenting the audio description to screen readers of assistive technology.” But he was not optimistic that this would happen “particularly soon.”

Audio description on ITV’s Love Island

Jane Laurance, head of specialist broadcast services for ITV, said the company was working ‘incrementally’ to manage the task of increasing AD. She also said it was a complicated process to offer more AD. But she was proud that in the last year ITV has started to provide AD on iOS as well as Android with its Video on Demand/ Catch Up service ITV Hub. On both platforms the company delivers approximately 31% of AD hours.

Colour photo of screen showing ITV audio description turned on

She said the current focus was on bringing AD in-house to have more control; on bringing more AD to audiences who use connected TVs, and also bringing AD to Brit Box.

Mobile accounts for approximately 30% of access to the ITV hub, with another 30% from browsers and 30% through connected TVs. Laurance said the company recognised that more needs to be done with respect to browsers and connected TVs in particular. “That’s where our focus is right now,” she said.

“The technical complexities involved and the resources needed to meet this challenge means full coverage on connected TVs and browsers will be much longer in coming, but we hope to make progress in the coming months and years,” Laurance offered.

Bringing access services in-house might mean that ITV can start providing AD on some of its ‘late delivered programmes’ such as Love Island.  Such programmes rarely come with AD at the moment. But, on the popular dating show Love Island, which Laurance said she gets asked about frequently, she said: “I’m not promising anything for next year quite yet!”

US broadcasting services are offering audio description on all home-made shows

At the moment, several US services are offering near to 100% English language AD on their home made shows. On 1 November, Apple began screening its own original series, films and documentaries. Sarah Herrlinger, global accessibility chief at Apple, said the company is providing this content in over 40 languages in closed captioning. AD is available in nine languages on Apple originals.

For content brought in, she said that Apple is encouraging the companies it takes content from to produce more AD. Abhiram Moturi, senior technical product manager at Amazon Prime Video, said the company was similarly trying to get more AD on the content it brings in. All of its own-made shows offer 100% English language AD.

In the last year, Moturi said Amazon had also “enabled audio description on many more smart TVs and living room devices.  We've already had it on many of our Android apps, on our iPhones, on the website and many of our Fire, TV and Amazon devices.”

Could audio description of the future be more creative and less functional?

Finally, Mariana Lopez from the University of York introduced Enhancing Audio Description colour logothe AHRC funded Enhancing Audio Description Project. This explores using sounds and spatial audio more instead of spoken AD; as well as making AD more poetic, creative and artistic rather than functional, where appropriate. 

Rai said there was a movement to explore more creative ways to provide audio description. “There are many initiatives underway right now that are looking at ways to improve the viewer experience of audio description users, particularly the role of binaural and spatial audio.

She said (Lopez’ project) was among the first ones she came across in 2017. “The results were promising and since then several projects have been launched to explore the benefits of this storytelling technique and the narratives that develop from it,” concluded Ray.

Find out more about Techshare Pro 2019

Read more about developments in audio description in our Techshare Pro 2018 AD blog