Audio description in England: Number one in quantity, but much to improve in quality

England has been the pioneering country in audio description (AD) and with this in mind we organized a study tour to London as part of our project The future of audio description in Norway. Towards the end of April we travelled with the project group to London and this article describes meetings and events during our trip.

Story by: Magne Lunde - 08.05.2013

The study tour was conducted as part of the project The future of audio description in Norway (FRES project), which is supported by the Extrastiftelsen. We were also accompanied by the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK, and the Norwegian Association of the Blind.

Good results

It was natural to start with a visit to the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), which has been working for decades to promoste support for AD. Their systematic endeavors have made England the leading country in the world for AD services. Some of their achievements so far are:

  • In 1996 AD became mandatory for at least ten percent of programmes on all TV channels. There are 69 channels in England. In 2010 the major broadcasters agreed to a voluntary incentive to increase the amount of AD to at least 20 percent of all programmes. This has resulted in approximately 6000 programmes weekly with AD.
  • Most new English language films are now audio described. There are over a thousand English films with AD.
  • Between four and five hundred cinemas in England have facilities for distribution of AD.
  • There are relatively extensive live AD services at theatres and events, and the various locations have purchased equipment for the distribution of AD.

Almost no AD online

RNIB is now focusing on the accessibility of On Demand TV and video services. There are both talking televisions and top boxes in English, but there is still a lot of work to be done before the interactive services are accessible. There are almost no online videos with AD in England.

BBC has outsourced all AD production

The next day we visited Red Bee Media and the BBC. Red Bee Media is one of the major suppliers of AD for television in England. At the start of the provision of AD , the BBC produced AD services in house. In 2000 however, the BBC decided to outsource all production, which led to the creation of Red Bee Media who took over the department that had previously produced AD for the BBC. Today Red Bee Media delivers to several TV companies in England.

 At a meeting with Alan McGuggog in Red Bee Media

Both the BBC and Red Bee Media are very satisfied with this arrangement today. An external supplier ensures better control of economy for the BBC. Red Bee Media as a separate entity has opportunities to develop further and now has offices in Berlin and Paris, and start up in Australia is planned.

Red Bee Media suggests the programmes

Red Bee Media has 18 employees. They suggest which programmes should have AD, and the BBC approves the proposals. All the major TV series are audio described, as are programmes running at prime time. Programmes which centre around discussion, for example debate programmes are not given priority.

Accessible online video player

BBC launched iPlayer a few years ago. Accessibility was not a key part of the developmental process originally, but accessibility has improved considerably in recent years. Most of the AD productions are available on the BBC website and can be played with iPlayer. There is a special web area for AD productions.

Audio Description at the theatre

Later that day we went to see an audio described theatre performance. Before the performance we were given a pre tour, designed by the producer and the audio describer, that included a brief introduction to the play and an opportunity to get to know some of the main costumes and props. Usually the audio describer would prepare audio description of the performance beforehand, but this time she regretted that she had come unprepared. While it must be said that the play's language, Old English, was also a challenge, the poor quality of the audio description of such a complex plot and characters did not give us much understanding of the play, though we did get a feel of how AD is done.

Poor sound quality

The earphones were not high quality. They were of a type to be inserted into the ears, uncomfortable to wear over a long period, and the sound quality was poor.

A hundred shows a year

The next day we visited VocalEyes, a fourteen year old company, which in the beginning offered AD services at theatres and museums. Now they also provide live AD at a number of cultural sites. Their most recently initiated service is AD of architecture. The theatre still accounts for the main part of their business, approximately a hundred shows a year.

They confirmed that they are not satisfied with the earphones and are looking for a better system.

At a meeting with VocalEyes

Requires other qualifications

VocalEyes emphasized that live AD requires different qualifications than edited AD. Live audio describers must for example be able to capture and convey unforeseen events. They believed that AD training should also reflect this aspect. Live AD requires careful preparation if it is to be of sufficient quality. VocalEyes divide the work into three phases:

  • Information in advance: background information about characters and other key themes to allow a better understanding of the storyline without giving away the plot. Information is published on the website in advance.
  • Guided tour: a guided touch tour to get to know costumes and important props.
  • Implementation of live AD.

Two audio describers per performance

Vocal Eyes provide two audio describers at every event. Two different voices can provide a greater understanding and they can share the work. They are 21 employees, the majority are audio describers working part time and are paid per event. VocalEyes receives some public funding for purely administrative outlay. The theatres themselves cover the cost of AD, while AD services in museums are mainly financed through charity.

Economy decides

VocalEyes also gave their view of AD services for TV. Although AD for so many TV programmes is positive of course, they felt that the cost of AD determines which programmes are selected. The TV companies must meet the requirement for a certain percentage of all programmes to be audio described and the incentive for them is to choose the programmes where the cost of AD is low, rather than the programmes that most need AD. This was a danger they wanted to make us aware of.

Disability working group

That afternoon we visited the Cinema Exhibitors Association. They have a special working group, the Disability Working Group, which meets four times a year with important organizations in the film industry and organizations for disabled persons to discuss how cinema can best offer good film experience for everyone. This has led to four to five hundred cinemas in England providing equipment for AD, which the cinemas purchase and maintain. The working group is also spreading information about AD and has made an informational film and a brochure that is distributed to cinemas.

Hectic activity

The last item on the agenda was an AD film at a cinema. On the cinema website we found that Promised Land was advertised with AD. We had booked tickets in advance but met up in good time to ensure that the equipment was in order. This was fortunate as our request for six headsets for AD caused a sudden hectic activity. Testing revealed that the batteries were flat, and we soon saw a person with money in hand rush out to buy new batteries. Then there was retesting to find the headsets that were in working order.

Misinformation on the website

Once inside we listened to the commercials but when the film started there was no AD in the earphones, only the sound of the film in the cinema. Trond went out to make them aware of the error. They discovered that this film did not include AD after all, there had been a mistake on their website.

In London is isn't far to the next cinema and with so much AD, it was not a problem to find another show. In five minutes we had booked tickets to Ironman 3 which did have AD.

A letdown

The experience was still a letdown. The sound level in the cinema for all the action scenes was so high that it was not possible to hear the AD in the earphones, which were of poor quality. At full volume there was so much disturbance that the AD became very difficult to hear. So we missed a lot of the storyline. The earphones were uncomfortable to wear and too simple and cheap to provide a good service.

Lots to learn

There is no doubt that England is the great pioneer country in terms of quality of AD available, and Norway has a lot to learn from what they have achieved there. But there is a big question mark as to the quality of what is on offer. We believe that it isn't good enough. We have a lot to learn from those who have gone before us, and hopefully we can learn from some of the mistakes made in England. What we need now is political willingness in Norway to give visually impaired some of those services we find  in a country it is natural to compare ourselves with.


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