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A Snapshot of Descriptive Video in Canadian Broadcasting

Editor's Note: Bev Milligan has a long involvement in the fight to have television programs captioned, and is currently President of Media Access Canada

For the more than 50 years since the advent of commercial television in Canada, persons who are blind and partially sighted have lacked full access to television.

Until recently, there has been very little progress, and a growing sense of disillusionment within the disabled community. In fact, in a recent study on TV viewing by blind and low-vision Canadians, many stated they did not bother to watch television because they could not easily navigate the technology involved, and because of the frustration of not knowing which programs were audio described.

In the 2010 group licence renewals for the majority of Canada's TV broadcasters, the Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) chose not to require them to identify described video (DV) at the beginning of a program. In the same decision, however, the CRTC did require, as a condition of licence, all Canadian television broadcasters to increase their descriptions to four hours per week. Many, however, have failed to comply with this limited threshold. Moreover, as the decision did not include a compliance mechanism, it is impossible to enforce this requirement.

Some broadcasters are also entirely exempt from the four-hour requirement. CPAC, for example, does not need a licence, and because of jurisdictional issues, much of its programming cannot be regulated by the CRTC. The Ontario Legislature and House of Commons programming are not under the jurisdiction of CPAC or the CRTC, other than to ensure they are broadcast, and neither is described.

While progress has been slow in coming and challenging, both technically and in policy terms, there is hope. The CRTC has shown its commitment to the idea of accessibility by recently requiring BCE to establish a Broadcasting Accessibility Fund (BAF). If properly managed, the fund will be a major force in accessibility, funding production of closed captioning and descriptive video, investing in technologies to improve the provision of accessible content, and working to establish best practices.

The experience with closed captioning offers vital insights. The more people who use captioning, the better; expanding the market for captioning has proved critical.

Getting production costs down is also essential. Currently, it costs $125-$400 per broadcast hour to close caption a television program, while describing the same program costs $1,800 an hour.

But reducing the price at the cost of quality is not an option. It is essential to establish best practices from the outset to ensure minimum standards for quality. The next step is to increase the number of required hours of DV per week, and ensure that broadcasters impose a DV requirement on any programming purchased from an independent producer.

It is key that the disabled community becomes more involved in policy and technology decisions made by government and the CRTC, to ensure they do not undo what progress has been made. For example, when the CRTC deregulated commercials, the impact of selling airtime to underwrite DV production costs, similar to what is done with captioning, was eliminated.

Another example where it is important that government and broadcasters are made aware of the impact of technology and policy change was during the transition from analogue to digital television. This change had and continues to have a big impact on the distribution of descriptive video because while the CRTC required broadcasters to upgrade their facilities to digital, manufacturers of set-top boxes and televisions had no such requirement. Since there was no transition plan for accessibility, broadcasters are now having to find new ways to get digital descriptions to analogue set-top boxes. The result is often no descriptions.

In broadcasting, as in other aspects of Canadian society, change has been slow. Moves to improve accessibility for Canadians with disabilities have come as the result of the ongoing efforts of concerned individuals and organizations working to raise awareness and influence government policy.

What has also become clear over the years is that many of the adaptations to improve accessibility for one group have benefits far beyond those envisaged when the changes were first implemented. Curb cuts on sidewalks, for example, that were originally introduced for wheelchair users, are now more frequently used by cyclists or people pushing strollers.

Today, the single biggest users of closed captioning are not persons with hearing impairments but rather sports bars, as captioning allows patrons to follow the game despite the high level of background noise.

For described video, mobile radio and archiving offer tremendous market expansion.

Descriptive video gives an audio translation of what’s happening in the television program. So, for example, in the case of archiving, one could ask for any program with a woman wearing a red dress and all of these programs could be identified through audio description. This is a powerful opportunity to harness, resell and market programming in a way that has never been available before. What is required is the development of software tools and standards for description production, style and archiving.

One of the key changes in recent years that has helped shift attitudes is the coming together of the disabled community, with organizations across Canada united to speak with one voice. The Access 2020 Coalition united major accessibility organizations, like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, before the CRTC, arguing for a 100% accessible broadcast day by 2020. The government has responded by raising the bar for broadcasters, and more work needs to be done to achieve the dramatic increase in descriptive video necessary to reach the objective of 100% by 2020. Blind and partially sighted Canadians must be informed in advance when, and on what channel, a described program will be broadcast. They need access to set-top boxes that are reliable, user friendly and not overly complicated.

Finally, they have a right to the best possible quality of described video programming available.

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