Audio description trials on ABC iview

Graham Clements
The ABC is trialling audio description (AD) on its iview service. AD describes non-verbal action during a television program. AD can greatly enhance the television experience of people with a vision impairment. It can describe where a scene is set or what a character is wearing. The trial is currently limited to the iview website and the iview app. Vision Australia is disappointed the trial is limited to only iview. It also wants the government to make AD mandatory on Australian television.
Posted by: 
Graham Clements on 07/12/2015
ABC iview logo
ABC iview logo

Trial runs until June 2016.

The ABC is trialling audio description (AD) on a limited number of television programs on iview. Fourteen hours of new audio-described shows are scheduled to be placed on iview each week until the trial’s end in June 2016.

Audio description

AD is a verbal commentary that describes non-verbal action. It can be used for television, film and theatre. Audio is used to tell the audience where a scene is set, what the actors are wearing, and what they are doing. If there is the sound of glass breaking, a person with a vision impairment might wonder: What just broke? Did a serial-killer smash a window to enter a house? Or did that naughty cat knock a vase off a shelf? AD can tell people it was a man falling asleep and dropping his glass of sherry.  

Limited to iview

Currently the ABC’s audio description trial is limited to the latest version of iview. On iview a person must select the Programs A-Z list. At the top of the list they then select an Audio Description tag. For those new to AD there is a short video titled Audio Description: A New Feature on iview.

Audio description on iview

AD occurs during breaks in dialogue or when there are significant sound effects. It is not a running commentary and is used sparingly. In an episode of the children’s series Spooksville, AD sets the scene by describing a laboratory. It tells viewers a character looks like Frankenstein’s monster, and that the main character is putting on glasses. In the comedy The Ex-PM, the sub-titled dialogue of the Korean-speaking cook is audio described. On the same show a biographer is described as looking stunned that the ex-prime minister is clueless about his wife’s blatant affair.

Previous ABC audio-description trial

In 2012 the ABC conducted an audio description trial for their television stations. The results showed that AD greatly improves the television experience for people with a vision impairment. Around 95.5 per cent of blind users and 45.6 per cent of people with low vision said audio descriptions greatly enhanced their television experience.

The trial also showed the limitations and challenges of AD. It found audio description is not viable for live-to-air news and sport programs. In these instances, audio description is likely to clash with a commentator or newsreader’s words on a live program.

Timing restraints meant some programs were also not suitable for AD. The ABC found there may not be enough time between the filming of a program and it’s going to air for audio description to be added. An example of this is the ABC’s popular show Australian Story. Ironically when Vision Australia conducted its own research into AD this was one of the television shows its clients most wanted to have audio described.

As iview is a catch-up service, there is now more time to add AD to shows. So AD is now added to Australian Story for iview.    

Vision Australia and 2015 iview trial

While Vision Australia may welcome the current ABC trial, it points out there are limitations because iview is only a catch-up service.

One of Vision Australia’s clients said “I really want to watch TV, but I don’t want to watch it in a second-class way. All my family and work colleagues watch programs and talk about them soon after they watched them. By the time I get to watch them on iview the conversations have moved on and I’m left behind.”

Vision Australia also questions the usefulness of ongoing AD for iview when they estimate two-thirds of Australians who have a vision impairment don’t have access to the internet.

Vision Australia is also disappointed that neither the ABC nor the federal government have been proactive in promoting the trial to potential users. It believes the ABC should routinely promote the iview trial on radio and television, especially during television programs that are currently available with AD on iview.

Tell the whole story campaign

Vision Australia is currently running a Tell the Whole Story campaign to get AD to be more widely available. It wants the federal government to set mandatory targets for AD on the ABC, commercial networks and SBS. It says AD has been available on American television since the 1980s and in New Zealand since 2012. But AD is not available on any television channels in Australia.

Vision Australia says that with an aging population, the number of Australians with low or no vision is going to increase. Many of these people will have relied on their television for news and entertainment, so they will want AD. Vision Australia recommends people sign Stephen Jolley’s petition on calling for mandatory AD targets on Australian television.

If more people attempt to use AD on iview and give the ABC feedback, AD may become more accessible and more widely available.  


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