Audio description: The common objective

  • Author: Robert Pearson
  • Date: 5 Feb 2013

It exists in many forms, but the common objective for all description initiatives is always increased media accessibility.

It is referred to by different names depending on your jurisdiction and locale, and it is conducted by different practices and standards depending on experience and the nature of the media itself.

In turn, it is regulated by different policies and procedures — or it's not regulated whatsoever. The provision of description allows a user who requires it greater access to media content. Internationally, this objective is slowly being realised, however it is a lack of consistency in that realisation that forces its development to be slower than it otherwise may have.

This series of articles will examine many of the facets of description as the world moves towards finding that consistency in its realisation. To begin though, it's important to level-set the terminology that exists and how the industry has initially evolved.

It's commonly known that the United Kingdom leads the way in the provision of description. "Audio description" is required on 20 per cent of all broadcast content, along with requirements for captioning and even on-air signing. Audio description is how it was first referred to in the UK and it is likely because of this that most the rest of the world refers to it in the same way. Australia recently concluded an audio description trial service on the ABC television network. More stringent guidelines for description there have yet to be established though.

In Canada, guidelines for the provision of description have existed for several years. Most broadcasters are required to provide four hours of described content per week, while the unique AMI-tv and soon its equivalent French broadcast channel, are licensed to provide 100 per cent of the broadcast day with full description. Strangely though to some, in Canada we refer to the internationally recognised audio description as "described video". Audio description is defined as something else, for example it can be news or sports content being read aloud to the viewer. Canada's regulator felt it was more appropriate to refer to these two practices in this manner, rather than lumping them together and referring to them as only audio description.

Apparently though, some other jurisdictions such as South Africa have recently begun to refer to the practice as described video. In the United States, audio description is referred to as "video description". Only recently in 2012 were initial regulations put in place to begin to provide description across the industry, but starting initially with the top 25 consumer markets.

While description in each of these jurisdictions is referred to by different terminology, all of these references are referring to the same practice of providing post-production description for video content. While consistency amongst its distribution is irregular, due to it also being based on different practices and standards, greater irregularities exist when considering the distribution of live event or embedded description. These much less common, yet growing in popularity practices have far less adoption in comparison to description that is post-production.

Live event description requires subject matter experts who are able to provide description as they see it, such as for the Royal Wedding, the Olympic Games or a live theatre production. Embedded description takes the responsibility of the provision of description beyond that of the broadcaster to the producers themselves, to develop content that is essentially self-describing thereby requiring no separate description track.

While the provision of description may vary, the objective of the practice is consistent and the industry will continue to evolve as that consistently becomes integrated into the practice itself.

These are many of the topics that will be covered in this series of articles that will be focused on finding that consistency of description.

This is the first article in a series on audio description by Robert Pearson, Director of Accessible Digital Media at Accessible Media Inc. (AMI), based in Toronto, Canada. He is also Chair of the Canadian broadcasting industry's Described Video Best Practices (DVBP) Working Group, striving towards the establishment of industry best practices in the area of audio description, known as described video in Canada.