In my former role with Media Access Australia, I used to have a tradition whereby I’d ask a prominent accessibility specialist to provide some insights on an important topic for the year ahead. In continuing that tradition on my own website, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Chris Mikul.
The speciality area of Chris is in relation to digital access in television, and to say he is an expert is an understatement – he has been working in this area since joining the Australian Caption Centre in the 1980s and continues to provide guidance as an accessibility consultant.
In this interview, Chris discusses the somewhat haphazard journey of audio description on television both here in Australia and abroad, considering the possibilities and pitfalls of an audio described video future.
SH: Can you give us an overview of what Audio Description is?
CM: Audio description is the descriptive narration of a film, TV show, performance or other media for people who are blind or have vision impairment. It was first developed for American TV in the early 1980s, and is now available on television in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Korea and many European countries. But not, sadly, in Australia. If it’s well done, it’s a wonderful service that transforms experience of media for people who need it.
SH: How common is AD in cinema and the Arts?
CM: Since 2014, audio description has been available in over a hundred cinemas owned by the four major cinema groups, Hoyts, Village, Greater Union Birch Carroll & Coyle and Reading. It’s delivered via headphones, which the consumer has to request before a screening. Unfortunately it’s not well publicised so people who would benefit from it often don’t know about it, and sometimes the cinema employees aren’t clear about it how it works either, so there can be problems when people request it. Audio description is also available for selected theatrical performances, art exhibitions, and so on.
SH: In Australia, AD on TV seems to be elusive, but there was a trial for it some years back. Could you tell us a bit about the trial and other AD experiments in Australia to date?
CM: There have been two trials, both involving the ABC. The first took place over 17 weeks in 2012, during which two hours of audio described programs were broadcast on the main ABC channel each day. The ABC prepared a report for the Government, which was eventually made public, and this was supposed to be followed by the Government consulting with stakeholders about a future service on TV, but this simply didn’t happen. For the second trial, in 2016, audio description was provided for programs on the ABC’s online catch-up service, iview. This was judged a great success by consumers, but again, it hasn’t been followed by the introduction of a regular service, which is extremely frustrating.
SH: How does AD on TV in Australia compare with AD in other countries such as the UK?
CM: The levels overseas vary considerably. The United Kingdom has the highest mandatory levels – 20% of programs on most channels must be audio described, but some channels have elected to do 30%. Canada has a dedicated accessible channel on which everything is audio described and captioned. The levels in other countries that have it tend to be low, but in New Zealand they’re now up to 40 hours a week. That’s a bittersweet situation for me because I went over to New Zealand in 2011 to train the first audio describers there.
SH: Do you think legislation has an impact on whether or not AD is provided on TV?
CM: Having worked in the accessibility sector for almost 30 years, one thing that has unfortunately become clear to me is that legislation (sometimes combined with the threat of litigation over discrimination) has always been the main mechanism for attaining high and continuing levels of accessibility in media. The reason that we do not have audio description on broadcast TV here is that Australian government has shown no interest in making the delivery of it mandatory, and the broadcasters don’t want to provide it because of the costs and the technical work involved.
SH: Are there any other mechanisms such as websites and apps that might be able to make AD more common?
CM: There’s actually an interesting experiment being conducted at the moment by an Australian company called Big Access Media. They have developed an app that you can use to access audio description files for some children’s programs on Foxtel (the app synchronises the file with the program’s soundtrack). That’s a good development and I’m sure we’ll see more of these sorts of solutions in the future. The main issue with something like this is that a lot of a lot of blind people, particularly older people, don’t have access to the internet, and don’t have smartphones. That’s why the blindness advocacy groups have always called for audio description to be available on TV, so everybody can experience it easily.
SH: What do you see as the future of AD?
CM: I think it will continue to grow around the world, although it will probably be a long time before it becomes as common as captioning. In Australia, it’s hard to say. The Department of Communications recently completed an investigation into the future of audio description, during which it consulted with advocacy groups, broadcasters and access service providers. I attended meetings in my capacity as a consultant for Media Access Australia (now the Centre for Inclusive Design). A report has been completed that sets out various options, so now it’s up to the Government to decide what they’re going to do, if anything.
SH: If people would like to experience AD, what organisations are best placed to help provide information about what’s on and where?
CM: There’s no single repository of information, and because the provision of the service is so patchy here, that creates its own problems. Cinemas owned by the groups I listed above should identify audio described screenings on their websites. Otherwise it’s really just a matter of contacting theatres, art galleries and the producers of other events and asking if there will be any audio description. That’s actually a good thing to do anyway, as it will increase awareness of the service among organisations that may never have even thought of it.
SH: Chris, thank you so much for your time.
Thanks again to Chris for providing such fantastic insights and I’ll endeavour to keep you posted throughout the year as news relating to audio description and digital access more broadly continues to break.