Audio Description in Australia: It’s time to allow everyone the right to watch TV

Photograph of an old-fashioned television set, up against the background of a cloudy sky. On the screen, a black and white image of a family watching television.
CC image by Robert Couse-Baker

Recent research by Comcast and the American Foundation for the Blind found that 96% of adults with vision impairment watch the same amount of television as sighted audiences. Many of these audience members make use of audio description – a track of narration describing important visual elements delivered between lines of dialogue.

Example of Audio Description:

However, Australia remains the only English speaking nation in the OECD not to offer it on free to air television.

Audio description is now available via broadcast television in the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, France, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Korea, Thailand, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and a number of other European and Asian countries.

According to Emma Bennison, CEO of Blind Citizens Australia, the Australian blindness sector has been advocating for this accessibility feature to be provided on free-to-air television for over twenty years:

“We have shown extraordinary patience and a willingness to work collaboratively with Government through the various trials and consultation processes, but twenty years is too long, and we will no longer allow Governments to ignore us.”

The trials Bennison refers to were offered by the ABC, one on free-to-air television in 2012 and an iView trial in 2015-2016. There have been no moves to date to make either trial permanent.

Instead consultation on the issue has been ongoing since the late 1990s when the sector called for the introduction of audio description at the same time as digital television. Throughout 2017 the government convened an audio description working group (of which I was a member) to discuss options for the provision of audio description on television. Although three possible approaches were identified, no clear recommendation was put forward.

Speaking on Radio National on the International Day of People with Disabilities Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin highlighted the fact that Australian soap opera Home & Away is audio described on UK television but not Australian. In the same way many American series are audio described however, these audio track are not distributed in Australia.

Even more alarming is the fact that a significant number of Australian television dramas are audio described according to Screen Australia funding agreements yet there is no mechanism to make this track available via broadcast television.

Screenshot from Home and Away showing Roo Stewart (Georgie Parker) and Alf Stewart (Ray Meagher) looking surprised. The caption "strewth" indicates that Alf has just dropped one of his famous catch phrases.
Screenshot from Home and Away (Seven Network)

This week, TV4all launch a new campaign hoping to change this. They are asking Australians to contact their locals MPs urging them to support the introduction of legislation that requires Audio description on free to air television.

In addition to Australia’s clear mandate to offer audio description on free to air television under the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with disabilities, sighted audiences are increasingly finding value in this service, just as hearing audiences have with captions on television.

As Emily Price explained on Lifehacker:

“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.”

Researchers in the Discipline of Internet Studies at Curtin University recently conducted research into the potential benefits of audio description to a mainstream audience. Sighted participants highlighted the benefits of audio description when multitasking during daily activities. Multitasking was described as being able to enjoy television when screen visibility is obscured or their attention is divided:

“For me personally it reduces the reliance on the visual aspect of the shows to follow what is going on, making it easier to follow when I’m trying to do things while watching.”

“I think it opens up more opportunities. Previously I would have only watched a show if I were able to actually give my attention to the screen, however this would allow me to divide my attention and multitask.”

Audio description was also seen as a way to make visual media more accessible when mobile and/or unable to reliably focus on a screen, for example during hands-on activities that required intermittent focused attention. These included cooking, practising a musical instrument, caring for children and crafting.

This large potential mainstream audience seeking to multitask and experiment with digital media combined with over 453,000 Australians living with vision impairment or blindness, represent a significant portion of the audience. There is clear economic and business opportunity for Australian broadcasters to implement audio description as a way to go beyond traditional stationary television ‘viewing’ in an increasingly mobile digital world.

Written by Katie Ellis

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