The State of Video Description Around the World

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By Diane Johnson

The July 4th Independence Day celebrations come a few days early this year for the nearly 30 million blind and vision impaired people in the U.S.

Thanks to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, that is the day that television networks across the country will be required to provide the equivalent of four hours of video described programming every week. For those 30 million blind and vision impaired, this means greater independence as they can now enjoy a more robust television experience and share in the collective social dialog that so much of today’s television content facilitates.

This hallmark date also creates an ideal opportunity to educate content creators, television producers and distributors and network executives as to the status of video description (also called audio description, described video or descriptive video service) in television markets around the world.

In Europe, the U.K. and Germany are industry leaders in video description. In 1991, the Independent Television Corp. founded the AUDETEL consortium of regulators, consumer associations and broadcasters in order to explore issues related to described video content across Europe. In 1994, a field trial was conducted by the BBC using set-top boxes and, following this, an amendment to the Broadcasting Act legislated that 10% of all programs carry video description. Since that legislation programming carrying video description has never slipped below 17%.

Compared to Europe and North America, the development of video description in Australia has been a slow crawl but was kick-started in 2005 with a government grant providing description on 10 DVD titles. The service continued to grow from a low base of about 2% of entertainment DVDs to the current 25-30%. On the broadcast television front, a video description field trial has been carried out in the last 12 months led by the non-profit agency Media Access Australia. This organization has been working with all sides on negotiations for an increase in descriptive video services. It is hoped this will be the precursor to a full video description service coinciding with the country’s end of analogue television in 2014.

Japan was the first country in the world to offer described video for the blind and vision impaired in 1983. While the percentage of video described programming is still low (4% for national broadcaster NHK), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has established guidelines that will raise video description to 10%.

Despite being home to more than 9 million people who are blind or vision impaired, China is only just beginning to take its first tentative steps into descriptive video services. In 2010, the movie Aftershock was the first DVD release in China to carry video description in Cantonese.

In India, where blindness affects more than 15 million people, descriptive video began in 2005, with the Saksham Trust creating a video description track for the award-winning film Black. Response was enthusiastic and since then Saksham has released numerous Hindi films with video description and film production houses are beginning to show interest. There are no television channels in India currently carrying descriptive video, but the 2010 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act will help with a provision calling for video description on films and documentaries on public and private television broadcasts.

As the global population increases, especially in the western world where there will be a large increase in those over the age of 60, so too will the number of individuals with vision problems. With an increase in demand there will also be many more providers of descriptive video services. To that end, it is imperative that standards are adopted and maintained. Inferior video description isn’t better than no video description at all because it will alienate the very audience it is supposed to engage.

The FCC mandates that, as of July 1, around four hours per week of programming must provide video description. It is our hope that broadcasters recognize the size of the audience they may be overlooking and step beyond the minimum requirements as has been the case in the U.K.

In the meantime, we wish America’s blind and vision impaired audiences a very enjoyable Independence Day!

Diane Johnson is founder and CEO of Descriptive Video Works, a leading provider of video description services in North America.