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Video description (also called audio description) is audio-narrated descriptions of the key visual elements of video programming which are then inserted within the natural pauses in the program’s dialogue to help blind and visually impaired viewers to better understand the story. Key visual elements are those which viewers with low vision are likely to miss such as actions, costumes, facial expressions, gestures, sight gags, scene changes and onscreen text. A script containing the descriptions is written by a trained describer, read by a professional narrator and then mixed with the main program audio. The process for creating verbal descriptions is summarized in A New Appreciation for Audio Description. Many samples of audio description are available on the Audio described cinema mp3 sound clips web page.

Audio description is available for a variety of visual media including television programs, feature films, DVDs, live theatre, museum exhibits and theme park attractions. Currently in the United States, it is mandated it to be provided on television programming and by government agencies who must comply with Section 508 requirements. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines also includes level A (SC 1.2.3), level AA (SC 1.2.5) and level AAA (SC 1.2.7) success criteria requiring audio description. Audio description may be compelled for videos under other laws as well such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as indicated by the Department of Justice. On August 1, 2014, the DOJ issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to amend Title III of the ADA compelling movie theaters to provide closed captions and audio descriptions for movies when available.

For TV shows, the video description track is synchronized with the television program using time code and then broadcast as an alternate audio track as part of the television signal. Viewers access video description by enabling the alternate audio feed on their television or set top box. This feed is often labeled using a language identifier such as Spanish because the secondary audio program (SAP) channel is often used to carry audio for additional program languages when video description is not being provided.

Requirements for Video Description

Section 202 of the CVAA directed the FCC to reinstate video description regulations that were adopted by the Commission in 2000 which were then overturned by a U.S. Court of Appeals due to insufficient authority, with certain modifications. The re-instated video description rules went into effect on July 1, 2012 and were released in FCC report and order 11-126 and published in the Code of Federal Regulations under 47 CFR 79.3. They require local TV station affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC located in the top 25 TV markets and the top five nonbroadcast networks (Disney, Nickelodeon, TBS,TNT and USA) to provide 50 hours of video-described children’s and/or prime-time television programming per calendar quarter which averages out to about four hours per week. As of July 1, 2015, the requirement extends to the top 60 TV markets as determined during the 2013-2014 period, and the History Channel will replace Nickelodeon for determining the top five non-broadcast networks as indicated in this FCC Order and Public Notice. Subscription TV systems offered over cable, satellite and fiber optic networks with 50,000 or more subscribers must also carry video description. TV stations and subscription TV systems of any size must pass through video description when provided by the network or channel when the technical capability necessary to pass through video description exists and the technology is not being used for another purpose.

When a program that originally included video description is re-run, all subsequent airings must also include the video description unless the technology is being used for another purpose, however only the first and second airing (first re-run) of the program are allowed to count towards the mandate of 50 hours per calendar quarter of described programming.

As of May 26, 2015, all TV stations and subscription services are required to make any emergency information that is displayed visually such as screen crawls accessible to blind viewers over the secondary audio program (SAP) feed of the broadcast signal as required by 47 CFR 79.2. The verbal rendering must be preceded by an oral tone and must be announced a minimum of two times. Any consumer equipment used for the playback and recording of television programming must pass through the SAP feed so as to allow for the audio rendering of emergency information to be received as required by 47 CFR 79.105. Manufacturers must provide top-level access to activation of the SAP channel via “a mechanism reasonably comparable to a button, key or icon” so that blind viewers can quickly gain access to critical information without having to traverse multiple layers of on-screen menus. Recently the Commission extended the requirement pertaining to subscription services to provide access to the SAP feed to include “second screens” as noted in rulemaking FCC -15-56. Second screens are defined as tablets, smartphones, laptops or any other technology that allows for the viewing of television programming. Materially this means that a cable or satellite provider that allows viewers to watch a linear TV signal via Internet Protocol using a website or mobile app must provide access to the secondary audio for the channels delivered in this fashion so that viewers can gain audible access to visually-presented emergency information. This requirement will go into effect in June of 2017.

What is Described?

Currently the shows that include video description are up to the discretion of the network so long as a minimum of 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time and/or children’s programming are described. Live programming such as sporting events and near-live programming taped within 24 hours of broadcast such as the Tonight Show are exempt from the requirement. Some networks have been voluntarily providing video description for many years including PBS and Turner Classic Movies even though they are not mandated to do so. To determine which shows include video description, the networks themselves provide the most accurate listings as follows:

Video Description Delivered via IP

Currently emergency access information is the only video description that is mandated to be provided via Internet Protocol as a secondary method of watching linear TV programming. As a reminder, agencies subject to Section 508 requirements must provide audio description for all videos which support the agency’s mission, including those posted to the web. Up until recently, none of the streaming media services offered video description with their video content. In April 2015, Netflix introduced a limited number of titles which included video description with some of their original series. Over time they have rapidly rolled out additional titles with video description including third-party content, and their library continues to increasingly expand. Subscribers can locate currently available titles with video description by consulting the Netflix titles with audio description page.

Remaining Challenges

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an audio description roundtable hosted by the video programming subcommittee of the FCC Disability Advisory Committee of which I am a member. We explored the current state of audio description including what is available, how it is accessed and what the future holds. We also discussed a number of issues that still exist for enjoyment of audio description. Enabling the audio description on the set top box is a primary challenge for visually impaired viewers due to the fact that often these features are enabled using layers of on-screen menus for which no redundant auditory or tactile method of access is provided. This issue will be addressed by the upcoming FCC rules for accessibility of user interfaces on navigation devices (see the CVAA Sections 204 and 205 category on the blog). Determining which shows include audio description was another challenge identified for blind and visually impaired viewers, from obtaining accurate listings that indicate audio-described programs from aggregators such as TV Guide to providing an audible alert when the program airs. An additional frustration that was voice concerns the sharing of the SAP channel with alternate foreign language audio tracks. As a limited amount of programming includes video description, this means that a viewer could be watching a described program only to have it immediately followed by Spanish audio on the SAP feed. The video programming subcommittee will be exploring some of these issues and providing recommendations to the Commission in order to address them. Stay tuned for exciting developments as access to television for blind and visually impaired viewers continues to evolve.