“Audiobooking” Netflix: Mainstreaming audio description during the global lockdown

Close up photograph of a keyboard, focusing on the number seven key, which also includes the word 'home'.
Photo by Alicia Solario from FreeImages

A core area of interest for the Curtin research team behind this website has been the potential benefits of audio description (AD) for television viewers who do not necessarily identify as blind or vision-impaired. To find out more, we surveyed various focus groups including audio book readers, parents of young children, people with autism, film students, and everyday television fans.

In our report we noted that “sighted participants were largely unaware of AD and had ‘no idea’ it could also be of use to sighted people.” However, “once they were made aware, sighted participants expressed interest in using the service and showed a preference for higher quality AD” (2019, p.73).

As millions of people around the world are confined to their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential benefits of audio description for mainstream audiences have become even more important.

Our focus group participants found audio description useful in a variety of domestic settings, especially multitasking while performing daily activities such as cooking, crafting, playing music, or caring for children. With schools closed and many people working from home, tools that assist with multitasking are more valuable than ever.

There are increasing signs that people in lockdown would benefit from audio description. A recent article by Akriti Rana for TechPP suggests that AD is useful for “audiobooking” Netflix content during quarantine:

“[S]ometimes, it is just not possible to keep your eyes on the screen – you might have some chores, you might actually be working on something and so on […] Fortunately, there is a way around this. Your can actually listen to the Netflix show or film just as you would an audiobook – compete with descriptions, music, and dialogue, allowing you to visualise the action, even if you are not in a position to watch it.”

The article includes detailed instructions on how to access AD through Netflix and an explanation of its origins:

“[AD] was initially designed to help the visually challenged experience the Netflix universe, but it is just fine for those times when you simply cannot sit and veg-out in front of your TV but cannot wait to know what happens next either.”

This kind of article provides a valuable service by raising public awareness of audio description. It also illustrates how world events are impacting mainstream consumption of media. AD makes film and television more accessible for everyone, which is crucial in our changing world.

As many are now observing, the enforced isolation of the general public is highlighting issues that people with disability have been dealing with for a long time.

“[T]he coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the critical importance of digital communication for businesses to run smoothly during this period, and its importance in allowing those staying at home to remain connected with friends and family, deterring loneliness. The value we see in digital communications must apply to people with disabilities, too. We must ensure going forward that websites and digital media are fully accessible, and that captioning and audio description become the norm, not the exception, so that people with disabilities can enjoy the very same benefits we’re experiencing right now.”

– Caroline Casey, “COVID-19’s isolated world is the norm for people with disabilities.” World Economic Forum, 7th April 2020.
Photograph of a coffee mug sitting in front of a flat screen television showing the Netflix logo
Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Another useful ‘Life Hack’: Mainstream Reporting on Audio Description

image of a woman wearing headphones
CC image by Audio-Technica

Earlier this year, Lifehacker published an interesting article by Emily Price that highlights the potential mainstream benefits of audio description. It goes beyond traditional stationary television ‘viewing’ to consider the role of audio description in an increasingly mobile digital world.

Sure, you’ve heard of binge-watching shows on Netflix, but how about binge listening?

Netflix has a category of programs that it offers audio descriptions for, where a voiceover explains to you what characters are doing in a scene. With it you can listen to shows rather than watch them, essentially transforming them into something like an audiobook or podcast you can stream while you’re out for a walk or when you’re in bed at night trying to fall asleep.

Price explains that:

I’ve tried it out with a few shows and the descriptions are actually pretty great. Stranger Things may have just become the soundtrack to my morning dog walks.

You can read the full article here.

This is not the first time mainstream media have framed audio description as a ‘life hack’ for a mainstream audience. Inspired by a reddit thread on the topic, Mathew Dunn wrote similarly about audio description in late 2017. To quote Dunn’s article:

In essence, the feature will turn Netflix content into an audiobook so you can keep up with your favourite shows and movies even if you can’t sit down to watch them.

This ‘hack’ was also featured in articles on websites like FHM and Brobible.

Somewhat predictably, FHM frames audio description as a sneaky way to enjoy your favourite shows and films when you are supposed to be doing other things.

We’re not suggesting you do this every day, but should there be a time (or two) during the week when you’re particularly hungover (or simply don’t give a crap about your career) and you want to distract yourself from the bleak reality of office life, we’ve got the perfect way to do it: Netflix audiobooks!

In comparison, Connor Toole presents audio description as both practical and healthy:

As someone with a slightly unhealthy addiction to technology, I’m usually staring at some sort of screen at virtually every point in the day.

[…] I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen at night. While some people might decide to use music for background noise, I prefer to throw on a TV show from a bingeable series to distract myself.

Articles like these suggest there is a huge potential demand for audio description among general television fans, people who are busy, active viewers, and people who just need a rest from screens.