By Jonathan Craig

Listen to the audio

When BCA CEO Emma Bennison first heard Audio Description (AD) was coming to Australian free-to-air TV, she was on leave, watching a described TV show with her parents. She’d checked her email out of habit, expecting nothing new so near to the end of a busy year. “I read it, and I just kind of gasped, but didn’t actually say anything.”

Eventually, she had to pause Netflix and tell her Mum and Dad what she’d seen. Then she leapt into action, working through the afternoon with BCA staff and members on our announcement of the news. After 25 years of campaigning by BCA and other blindness organisations, the federal government had provided implementation funding for AD on the ABC and SBS.

Though the arrival of the programming was six months away, the surprise victory was a great Christmas present. But Emma struggled to celebrate it for weeks, and she says she wasn’t alone in that. “I think a lot of us just didn’t believe it for quite a long time.”

Emma had been advocating for AD since she’d first joined the BCA board. At that time, 23 complainants had taken the ABC to the Human Rights Commission. Emma was one of the board members who attended the conciliation sessions, and what she experienced there left her feeling utterly despondent. “I had almost been reduced to tears on so many occasions, in terms of just trying every possible argument, trying to appeal to them on a moral level, on a social level, and just not succeeding.”

A Human Rights Issue

Despite a fear that their efforts could be futile, she, BCA President John Simpson, and many others, have remained utterly dedicated to the cause through years of setbacks. They’ve been driven by BCA members, for whom this has been a clear priority. But they’ve also been spurred on by a knowledge that AD is a human right.

Article 30 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability, to which Australia is a signatory, says that governments should recognise our right to “enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural activities, in accessible formats”.

Emma sees this as a vital part of our inclusion in society. “The arts and entertainment underpin all aspects of our social fabric,” she said. “And if we ever needed an example of that, we need only look at what people are doing while they’re in lockdown.”

John Simpson agrees that last night’s TV is still a big part of today’s water cooler conversations, and if we can’t watch that TV properly, we aren’t able to discuss it with our colleagues or friends. “Without Audio Description,” he said, “people who are blind or vision impaired are excluded from a lot of that social interaction.”

But it’s about more than just keeping up with MasterChef, though that’s important too. AD has incredible educational value. It can teach blind children to understand visual concepts and give adults an easy way to learn about politics or geography. It can verbalise information in documentary or news programs which is usually offered in on-screen text, some of which could even save lives.

As a young performer, Emma used AD of opera to learn about the visual aspects of the art form. “And as parents, people really struggle if they can’t have conversations, particularly with young children, about what those children are watching on TV.”

“Those are not insignificant things. They link back to employment. They link back to education. They link back to parenting, all of which, I think all of us would say, are critical issues.”

Despite all this, until now, Australia has been the only OECD country not to have AD on free-to-air TV. So why has AD taken so much longer to arrive here, when it has been commonplace for years in the US, the UK, and even New Zealand?

Looking Back

The first ever recorded instance of AD might have been a screening of the film Bulldog Drummond in 1929. “An interlocutor explained the visual sequences for the blind when the dialogue was momentarily halted,” explained a report in the New York Times. “Those without eyesight seemed to enjoy the performance, especially the humorous parts, and there was prolonged applause at the end of the film.”

In Australia, AD had its genesis in live theatre, and tours of museums and art galleries. This was inspired by the pioneering work of Dr Margret Pfanstiehl, of the Metropolitan Washington Ear. When Dr Pfanstiehl and the Ear worked with PBS to organise description of their American Playhouse programs, 3RPH and the Association for the Blind in Melbourne were eager to replicate her work.

This began in 1983, with live description of Tennis matches, broadcast on 3RPH and other stations. Often employing former ABC commentators for their expertise, these broadcasts featured ball-by-ball explanations of the game, interspersed with the usual TV commentary.

As BCA President John Simpson explained, this then led to live broadcast description of popular Australian drama series, particularly from the Nine network. “The radio station could rebroadcast the mix of the broadcast sound and its own AD, and it would still be in sync with the vision of the television program. That’s really where AD on Australian television started,” he said.

This service, while never available nationally, was popular with listeners. It was only halted by a technical issue. As RPH moved toward satellite transmission to simplify moving content from one market to another, it became impossible to keep their broadcast synchronised with the TV picture. That meant this form of AD wasn’t viable for a person watching with their family.

By the mid-90s, digital TV was also on the horizon, which would further exacerbate the delay problem.

But the extra broadcast bandwidth in the digital spectrum offered new ways to transmit AD, which were being tested with promising results elsewhere. BCA took the view that the introduction of digital TV would be a great opportunity for broadcasters to introduce AD on free-to-air TV at the lowest possible cost.

Many of you will be well aware of the assumption that because TV is an inherently visual medium, people who are blind or vision impaired don’t engage with it. Several surveys have proven this to be false, including one by the American Foundation for the Blind, which showed that 96 per cent of people who are blind or have a substantial vision impairment watch TV frequently.

This key statistic helped BCA successfully apply for grant funding, which was used to produce a research report, released in 1999, called “When a Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures”. The report profiled blind or vision impaired television users and described in simple terms what a good AD service should look like.

But the most important aspect of the research was an investigation into the deprivation people who are blind or vision impaired experience when watching undescribed TV. They asked participants who were blind, or vision impaired to describe what they thought was happening, and what information was provided, in excerpts from dramas, documentaries, and advertisements.

“We measured that, and came up with a score, a percentage rating, and presented that as a level of deprivation that the blind and vision impaired audience experienced as against a fully sighted audience, and particularly the intention of the program producers or advertisers.”

This research was well-received, and Simpson says it’s still well-known 20 years later. But for various reasons, though digital TV started broadcasting in 2001, it initially had a very low adoption rate, and was only available in capital cities. No commercial organisation would invest in a technical solution for an obsolete system, so it was clear that we would have to wait a little longer for our moment.

A Changing Landscape

But in that time, we could do a lot more to address one of the biggest arguments networks have used against providing AD – the cost of creating the description tracks. In the mid-2000s, Graeme Innes, who was the Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the time, organised a public inquiry where representatives from the industry and from the blindness sector met to negotiate for better provision of AD on home entertainment DVDS, which of course largely replicated content which was also broadcast on television.

By now in the UK, seven out of ten of the most popular home entertainment releases were audio described. The case they made wasn’t about creating more content but making sure that description tracks were included on the Australian releases of movies and TV shows whenever they were available. They also successfully negotiated for the AD emblem to appear on the jackets of releases which included description. This was a major victory, because it made it possible for people who needed it to purchase mainstream products, and access them in an inclusive way.

Following the UK, which had led the way in 2003, AD arrived on TV in the US in 2010, and New Zealand in 2011. When major cinemas transitioned to digital delivery, the federal government provided subsidies to help them offer AD on major releases. And the Australian Film Corporation introduced a requirement that all productions which received AFC funding needed to include a description track.

As Australia completed its transition from analogue to digital TV, there was no real shortage of described content, and several organisations producing it on a sound commercial footing. “And in fact, for many years,” Simpson pointed out, “Australian TV series, including both Neighbours and Home and Away, have been audio described for the overseas market, but of course weren’t available in the Australian context.”

In 2011, BCA members made an anti-discrimination complaint against the ABC, for failing to provide appropriate access to their content. This ultimately resulted in the first trial of AD broadcast on TV, conducted over 13 weeks in 2012 on the ABC.

BCA, in collaboration with other representatives in the sector, produced a report evaluating the trial. It concluded that though the content itself was well-received, many potential viewers were never aware of it, and others couldn’t access it thanks to technical difficulties, and the fact that some people still only had analogue TVs.

When the ABC showed no signs of following up on the trial, BCA launched a second complaint against them. In 2015, they took another approach with a second trial of AD via their iView catch-up service. While this trial was also praised by many viewers, technical problems were again frustrating for others, and those who didn’t have fast internet connections or smartphones couldn’t access the trial at all.

In the same month as the iView trial began, Netflix, which had just launched in Australia, released Marvel’s Daredevil, a TV show about a blind superhero. Realising that a program representing a minority which members of that group couldn’t access might create a PR backlash, they used Daredevil to pilot provision of AD.

This move was so widely praised that they quickly promised to deliver more described content. Other streaming services, like Stan, Prime Video, and Disney Plus, followed in their footsteps, resulting in an unprecedented wealth of audio described content at our fingertips.

The federal government’s position at the time was that broadcasters should fund AD out of their existing budgets. To this end, in 2017, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield established an AD Working Group, gathering representatives from the broadcast industry and the blindness sector, including BCA, to work on a solution for AD on TV.

But while they brought a lot more described content, video on demand services had also brought a lot more competition for traditional television.

All television networks now had to fight harder for their audience, and the ABC and SBS, who were most likely to lead the charge, were suffering severe funding cuts. They argued that since they were now in “survival mode”, they couldn’t afford to implement AD.

A New Approach

BCA now decided to attack the problem from a new angle. In the age of binge-watching, if people knew we loved TV as much as they did, they would probably be upset that we were being denied that right. Emma Bennison explained that one of the biggest problems with advocating for AD is that many people have no idea what it is, or even that it exists.

“I’ve often made the comparison with captioning,” Emma said, “where everyone walks through the airport, and they see the captions on the television, and therefore they’re constantly reminded of captions, and they even use them quite extensively. But people don’t have that same awareness of AD, because you have to turn it on, and they don’t see it as being helpful to them.”

Will McRostie had never heard of AD until 2013, when a colleague asked him if he wanted to give it a try. He now works for Description Victoria, which provides live, professional quality AD for theatre and arts performance. When people ask him “what do you do”, he knows the next half hour of conversation is locked in.

His experience proves that when people do find out about AD, they usually become allies to the cause. “Either they just never think about blind people, or their presumption would be that it’s impossible for blind people to engage effectively with visual media,” he said. “So, to hear that there is a methodology for creating that access, people in general become very fascinated by that.”

In the UK, where Will received training, he says awareness of AD is much higher. But he felt that’s probably because it was already on broadcast TV there.

When you Google it, the first auto-complete suggestion is “how do I turn AD off”? “I think people in those countries where it is on broadcast television sit on their remotes, and suddenly this voice starts playing.”

BCA’s #TV4All campaign tackled the awareness problem head on with short videos designed to be spread on social media, demonstrating description, and offering an easy way to help. By entering your postcode, you could easily send either a pre-written or personalised email to your local MP.

Emma had been hoping for years to create such a system, to simplify the advocacy process. “We kind of managed to kill two birds with one stone,” she said, “and I have no doubt that we’ll use that mechanism again in the future.”

The campaign also highlighted personal stories, like that of BCA member Sally Aurisch, who described her own experience of deprivation and social exclusion. “I’m left feeling like that annoying friend that has to ask, ‘what just happened’, or ‘who just shot who’, so that I can figure out what’s going on in the show,” she explained in one video.

This work was spearheaded by BCA’s Social Media Manager, Kathie Elliott. “She understood innately how we needed to get the general public to understand what AD was and why it was important,” Emma said.

“And I think that’s a classic example of where having a sighted person on staff was incredibly helpful to us, because she would come to me and say look, from the perspective of the public, this is what they want to see, and this is what we need to do.”

#TV4All launched on the 3rd of December 2018, the International Day of People with Disability. Over the following year, AD received unprecedented coverage in Australian media, including stories on the ABC, SBS and the Project.

To mark the same date last year, Emma was asked again to discuss AD, at a lunch for the department of Communications and the Arts. As always, she delivered an incredibly compelling argument, explaining in simple terms how important inclusion is to our place in society.

Nonetheless, she never expected, only weeks later, to hear that finally, the government had decided to fund the provision of description. “You could have knocked me over with a feather,” she said.

Looking Ahead

Though she can’t take all the credit, to be able to make that announcement was thrilling for Emma. “You don’t get many wins in a role like this,” she said. “And for all our policy and advocacy staff particularly, I think we all took a lot from it. We got a big boost. It just gave us that impetus to keep pushing a lot of the other things that we’re pushing.”

Clearly, broadcasters have learned a lot from the long road behind us. The ABC and SBS have both enthusiastically publicised the arrival of AD on their social media. And much like the AD emblem for home entertainment, described programs will be marked by an AD symbol in TV guides, and proceeded by an audible chime in broadcasts.

But BCA has much more work ahead. John Simpson points out that just as in the previous trials, some users will still face technical obstacles. For example, activating AD can often only be achieved with sighted assistance.

John also points out that AD is only available on newer TVs. “If you consider that there’s a higher proportion of the blind and vision impaired population in the lower socio-economic groups income wise, then the reverse applies in terms of the likelihood of them being able to receive the AD.”

Emma agreed that systems and processes need to be put in place to assist people who can’t use the service. “There’s work to be done to ensure people have equal access,” she said, “because it’s a human right.”

Of course, #TV4All has not been fully achieved yet. While 14 hours per week of content on the ABC and SBS is a great step in the right direction, they only account for 20 per cent of the viewing market. And this implementation funding doesn’t guarantee that AD will be here to stay, through changes of government, continuing budget cuts or economic crises.

Australian free-to-air broadcasters are legally required to provide closed captioning on all TV programs broadcast between 6 AM and midnight. While AD has a legal mandate in many other countries, no such requirement exists here. “I think the most important piece of advocacy work that BCA has to continue is to ensure that the provision of AD is secured through legislation,” John said.

One way we can encourage this is simply by using the service. If we can show broadcasters, politicians, and the public that we’re enjoying AD, Emma says it will become extremely difficult to take it away.

“If I could ask one thing of people who are reading Blind Citizens News,” she said, “it would be to provide as much feedback to the networks as possible. Watch as much audio described content as you possibly can. Because it is numbers that make the difference.”

Watching TV seems like one of the easiest advocacy methods ever. And it’s a great way to celebrate this victory. With an understanding of the many barriers, setbacks and difficulties they faced, we can also celebrate the creativity and determination of all the people who brought it about, from pioneers in the US, to volunteers for 3RPH and other stations, to the BCA members, staff, and other tireless campaigners who refused to give up. The story of this 25 year long battle is a timely reminder that however slow it may feel, advocacy works.

The ABC and SBS both offer schedules of which programs are audio described, as well as instructions about how to access the service. To find this and other useful info, and to learn about BCA’s next steps, visit Recorded information regarding scheduled programs containing AD are available via BCA’s telephone system which can be accessed by calling us on 1800 033 660.

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