It is time to consider the mainstream benefits of audio description for film and television, Curtin University’s Katie Ellis writes.
Audio description (AD) is a track of narration describing important visual elements of a film, television show or live performance delivered between lines of dialogue to make it accessible to audiences who are blind or vision impaired.
However, AD is finally gaining the attention of policymakers with the Greens seeking to make the trials permanent and an AD working group convened throughout 2017.
In 2015, I wrote on Policy Forum that AD should be legislated in the same way as captioning is in the Broadcasting Services Act to ensure access for people who are blind and vision impaired. According to article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the lack of AD on Australian television is a human rights violation.
When I interviewed Australian television audience members with vision impairments for a project on the accessibility of subscription video on demand, one participant told me:
“We have a gutless government which won’t take on the big corporations or take on the multi-nationals in charge of the content. Also the multi-nationals pay lip service to providing audio described content to Australians.”
It is disappointing that legislative measures have not been adopted in Australia; however, the example of captions may provide some clues as to the way forward in the current political climate.
According to Downey, captions would benefit illiterate adults (13 per cent of the adult population), people learning English as a second language, and children learning to read (kindergarten to grade 3), therefore representing a large portion of the population. As a result, Downey wrote, arguments for captioning:
“No longer pitted a profitable television audience against a minority viewing community; instead it offered a low-cost technology that would end up in every single American household.”
Today captions have a significant mainstream audience, in large part due to Facebook’s autoplay feature. With over 85 per cent of Facebook users watching videos with the sound down, captions have become an essential feature of online videos.
Back in 2000 when the provision of AD was legislated in the US, the Federal Communications Commission noted that 60 per cent of the existing users of AD were not visually impaired. It is possible that such an audience exists in Australia too.
Of course, the human rights argument should have worked in Australia, which has ratified the UNCRPD, but it has not. It is time to consider the mainstream benefits of AD in this country.
As people increasingly use media in innovative and unexpected ways, Australian governments and broadcasters should support the provision of AD, primarily for audiences with vision impairments but also for the potentially rather large other audiences that stand to benefit.
While early captioning advocates and activists focused on the rights of people with hearing impairment to access and enjoy television as a form of social inclusion, it was only when these advocates could demonstrate the benefits of captioning for groups beyond those with hearing difficulties that the technology of closed captions really took off. AD offers similar mainstream benefits to audiences.
Broadcasters also stand to benefit from the innovative potential of AD, both in terms of capturing new audiences and the potential to retain the attention of existing audiences who might be distracted with other things. With multitasking activities effecting consumer engagement and advertising effectiveness, broadcasters, content providers, and advertisers should consider the innovative potential of supports to improve comprehension such as AD.
Dr Katie Ellis is a senior research fellow in the Department of Internet studies at Curtin University. She is the author of five books on the topic of disability, media and culture, and the series editor of the new Routledge Research in Disability and Media.