The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) have been given $2 million of Federal Government funding to provide Audio Description (AD) services from 1 July 2020.
Audio Description is a service that assists blind or vision impaired people to enjoy content such as television, theatre, or movies and provides verbal commentary to a program. It describes essential visual elements within the soundtrack of the program and explains things like settings, backgrounds, costumes, and actions.
Low vision and blind organisations such as the Royal Society for the Blind have welcomed the funding announcement.
Tony Starkey from the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB) says Audio Description “enhances the experiences of what you would understand [about the program].”
Highlighting the importance of AD he adds, “...all people should have the same access for when they are watching TV.”
AD is currently only available in Australia with online streaming services such as Netflix and Stan offering it for select titles. However, it is available in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
The funding for the ABC and SBS was announced before Christmas by Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP.
Mr Fletcher says that the introduction of Audio Description services on Australian television networks is long overdue, “Australia is the only English speaking nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or our national broadcasters to introduce Audio Description for their audiences.”
Mr Starkey agrees and adds “the blindness sector has been advocating for Audio Description no for well over 20 years...there is legislation that the deaf should have subtitles and Audio Description is just another form of accessibility for people”.
The Government has previously funded two trials of audio-described content. AD was trialled on ABC1 in 2012; and on the ABC’s catch-up TV service, iview, in 2015-2016.
Following these trials Audio Description Working Group (ADWG) was established, comprising representatives from the broadcasting and streaming industries, audio description service providers, and representatives from the blind and vision-impaired community.
The ADWG conducted an in-depth examination of the options for increasing the availability of audio-described content on Australian television, and the Government released the ADWG report in 2018.
The report identified three methods to deliver audio description on Australian television:
Online platforms (such as catch-up TV), or
A separate audio description service which could synchronise with the broadcast or online service.
The government has not directed the ABC or SBS on how to deliver the Audio Description service. They have also placed no legislative instructions or requirements for Audio Description.
There are concerns about this lack of legislation and the ability of stations to integrate Audio Description into their programs.
Mr Starkey says “Although they have avoided placing legislation we have been advocating for it. We would like at least the same obligations for [closed] captioning...so 14 - 15 hours a week of AD, but we are not sure what the dollar value will buy and how much the ABC and SBS will be able to integrate it into their stations.”
Emma Bennison, CEO of Blind Citizens Australia agrees adding, “the job is not complete, we still need to make sure that Audio Description is legislative in the same way captioning is legislated for people who are deaf. To make sure that it is not something that is at the whim of Government to withdraw at any time.”
As a part of the funding, the Government has set an expected timeframe for the service to be delivered.
Mr Fletcher says that “..the national broadcasters are expected to begin offering Audio Description services to audiences by 1 July 2020.”
The ultimate goal, according to Mr Starkey, is “...that in the future all content couldn’t be produced and transmitted or screened without Audio Description on it.”
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