What next for audio description on TV and advertising? TechShare Pro 2018

It’s 25 years since the first audio described programme arrived on UK TV, believed to be Coronation Street. Last year more than 150,000 hours of television were broadcast with audio description in the UK - a big win for those who are blind or have sight loss. In addition, 2018 also saw the first audio described advert - for Fairy liquid - broadcast on ITV.

For any fans out there - Gogglebox is now audio described, but still a lot of top TV programmes aren’t audio described across all viewing platforms and options. So what can we expect in 2019?

At the Google-sponsored TechShare Pro event in London on 30 November, it looked promising that an increasing amount of audio described programming and advertising would be available this year - meaning that people who are blind or have sight loss should miss out on fewer of their favourite programmes. 

W3C Community Group on Audio Description

In the Accessible Media and Advertising session of AbilityNet's event, we heard from speakers at BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, about how the broadcast sector is working to streamline and standardise what is still a relatively new practise.

Perhaps one of the most important developments, is the creation of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Community Group on audio description, which met for the first time in October 2018. “The aim is to agree requirements and proposals for a workable open standard file format for audio description,” said Nigel Megitt, executive product manager at the BBC and chair of the W3C group.

“Audio description is fantastic, but all of the tools that you use to make it are proprietary - there’s no way to exchange information about the production of audio description,” he said.

The art of audio description

There is clearly an art to creating useful and appropriate audio description which fits between dialogue, and this is something the industry is working to keep improving. Megitt added: “All the way through from writing the scripts to mixing the audio - there are no tool providers for this. The W3C group exchanges audio described scripts and is all about finding the right mix (of dialogue and audio description).

Having some ‘standard tooling’ would make it cheaper and easier for more people to create audio description, he told delegates.

The W3C group is also working on audio description being available for Braille devices or via speech-to-text, so that audiences who are blind or who have vision loss have a choice of how to receive information about what’s happening on their screen.

The W3C group has 19 participant organisations across the media industry and hopes to have open standard recommendations on audio description by the end of this year.

Getting audio descriptions on all platforms

Delegates shared their frustrations about how audio description is not currently available on a number of digital platforms such as Facebook and Youtube. But Sumaira Latif, special consultant for inclusive design at Procter & Gamble (who spearheaded the industry’s movement towards audio described adverts in the UK) said she was pushing for this. She said she was hopeful this would change in the near future and is working closely with key players in the industry to help find a solution.

Rachel Yendoll, head of content management at Channel 4, spoke after Latif, revealing that since she took over Access Services at the channel two years ago, her team has been on “quite a journey”.

“We had a lot to fix and I am happy to say we are getting there. In terms of making sure we have content there for viewers, we have listened to them, so stuff like Gogglebox is audit described. It's difficult to do. It's delivered to my team at 7pm in the evening and I have two teams on standby waiting to audio describe it.”

Audio description on Catch up TV

Yendoll said that progress is slower than she would like on getting catch up All4 programmes audio described across the 26 platforms that it’s available on. “We are on a journey of making those platforms accessible but it’s expensive and complicated,” she said. She hinted that there are “a couple of exciting things that will happen next year (2019) at Channel 4” in this space.

The BBC offers audio description on iPlayer as does ITV on its app.

Meanwhile audio described adverts are new to broadcasting. But they look set to grow considerably this year as the business case around audio description becomes obvious.

The business case for audio described adverts

Last year the first audio described advert was broadcast on ITV, largely driven by the work of Sumaira Latif at P&G. The other mainstream channels followed. Latif outlined the business case for advertisers such as Procter and Gamble, who spend £150 million a year on advertising. “By 2020 there's predicted to be 2.25million blind people across the world. That's an obvious audience who shave and wash their hair like everyone else,” she said.

However, Latif also pointed out that the current rules around audio described advertising are tight and she is asking for more realistic rules. “With the Fairy advert we had to go slightly over the dialogue in the advert with our audio description to make the commercial meaningful for blind viewers and those with low vision. We are supposed to keep audio description outside of dialogue but in a 30 second commercial this is very hard."

Check out one of Fairy's audio described adverts below. 

Sonali Rai, the RNIB’s broadcast relationships and audio description product manager, praised the broadcasting sector at the event. “I don't think there is a group that is more committed to accessibility,” she said. “It's not just about doing the right thing, but the sector is very progressive - looking at how it can extend accessibility into other services and how can it make the processes more efficient and improve the user experience.” 

One of the challenges, added Rai, is that platforms have been built and are now having to be retrofitted to include audio description. “If you build accessibility into the structures in the first place that is much easier."

Rai added that: “On television and video boxes, there is the capability to do audio description, but on the web, and on mobiles, there's still a bit of catching up to do - even though the capabilities are also there.

Latif, who is blind, is a big advocate for audio description and concluded the session by reminding broadcasters that they need to act more quickly. She said those who lag behind are missing out a large group of potential customers and viewers.

“We (people who are blind or have sight loss) don’t watch anything unless it is audio described. The people spending all this money making TV programmes are losing millions of people who can't enjoy catch-up TV. She urged the relevant figures in the industry to “put the business argument forward and help to accelerate it.” 

“You guys are doing the right thing, but we need to move faster,” said Latif. 

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