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Dvd Makers Blind to Access Problems

Editor's Note: article is reprinted from TV Barn, January 6, 2004: http://www.tvbarn.com

Not that it matters to you, but for the millions of Americans who have sight problems, the DVD revolution isn't amounting to much more than a hill of beans. And Hollywood could easily be doing so much more to help them.

You're probably aware that most home video these days is closed captioned. What you don't know is that the same movie studios also pay for a process called audio description (sometimes it's called video description), in which a narrator describes some of the visual action during breaks in the dialogue. It's unobtrusive and cheap to make (about $5,000 an hour) and the extra details even help people like me who have no trouble seeing the screen.

You can hear audio description on headphones supplied by a specially equipped movie theatre. Last year AMC theatres installed the system at the Town Center 20 cineplex in Leawood. I love it, and so do my friends in the blind and visually handicapped community. (It's on all the time but on screen No. 3 only. You can also watch captioning in No. 3 using a special reflector shield that you stick in your cup holder.)

Here's the kicker. When those same movies come out on DVD, the captions are included, but what about the descriptions? They're nowhere to be seen-or heard. The number of DVDs with audio descriptions is so pitifully few that Joe Clark, a Canadian expert on video accessibility, can maintain the entire list on his personal website.

One such title is "Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided," a six-hour PBS documentary series re-airing this week on KCPT. (Part 2 is at 9 tonight on Channel 19; check local listings for your area.) The DVD came out in 2002 and features not only an optional description track--which you turn on just like a commentary track--but also talking menus so you can find your way around the DVD without relying on the display.

In most cases, studios have already paid for audio descriptions by the time their movies go to video. The extra audio takes up hardly any space on the DVD. And with so many people dealing with compromised vision, it's an easy way to do good and, one would think, fuel DVD sales.

Perhaps Hollywood feels it's selling enough DVDs already. Yeah, that's it.

Image: Headphones