Future Reflections        Summer 2012

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Picturing the Movies: The Puzzling, Contradictory, Wonderful World of Audio Description

by Richard Holloway

From the Editor: Richard Holloway serves as vice president of the Georgia Parents of Blind Children. His daughter, Kendra, is in the fourth grade. He frequently shares his insights and expertise by writing articles for Future Reflections.

Kendra and her brother enjoy family movie night."Does Kendra like to watch movies?" my neighbor asked one day. Before I could answer her, she got that familiar look on her face--the look I see whenever someone thinks they have made a social blunder regarding my nine-year-old daughter, who is totally blind.

"Yes, she does," I replied. My neighbor was so busy apologizing that at first she didn't hear me. Then she seemed to think I was just trying to be polite. But it's true--Kendra likes movies very much, especially when DVS (Descriptive Video Service) is available.

According to WGBH-TV, the Boston-based PBS station that pioneered the service, "Descriptions make television programs, feature films, DVDs, museum exhibits, theme park attractions, and other visual media accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired by providing descriptive narration of key visual elements." My daughter loves DVS. It provides information that she truly craves, and it allows her to feel more fully included in a lot of the things her peers enjoy.

DVS offers a carefully planned description of elements of a film or TV show that are understood visually by the typically sighted viewer. It is even available for some live events, such as plays, circuses, and presidential inaugurations. All her life I have tried to describe as much of the world as possible to my daughter. DVS is another way of doing the same thing. Conveniently, with DVS, the description is simply there for the listening.

If you have ever listened to a baseball game on the radio, you have already heard an audio described program. The sportscaster assumes that the listener cannot watch the game, so he/she provides a verbal commentary. If you are the parent of a blind child, you probably do the same thing. A program is on, your child is interested in it, so you try to explain what is happening on the TV screen. The nice thing about DVS for a TV show or movie is that the descriptions are scripted. They are carefully planned to give as much important information as possible about a show. It would be difficult and exhausting to do this on the fly.

With audio description for a show or movie, it is important that the describer not talk through dialogue or song lyrics. Audio description is inserted carefully at quiet points between lines of dialogue. If there are sound effects or music in the background, the movie audio is typically "dipped," or made quieter, while the describer speaks.

As a sighted listener to numerous DVS films, I enjoy following what is happening on the screen when I'm in the next room or driving the car. DVS definitely makes crosscountry drives more tolerable for our family. My two younger children, one blind and one sighted, can watch show after show, sharing and enjoying a common experience.

How can you track down DVS videos and broadcasts? I have found a number of options.

Home Videos

DVS is probably best known for home video use. A few years back, the best way to watch a video with DVS was to purchase a videocassette or borrow one from a lending library. The choices were limited and the sources for loan or purchase were few. Videocassettes with DVS were hard to come by, but they were easy to use. The tape always played with audio description, as long as you had the right version.

A few of these old VHS tapes remain in circulation, but times have changed. The DVD is now the medium of choice for most home video buyers. DVDs dominate the selections from lending libraries and video rental kiosks as well. A DVD can have multiple audio tracks from which to choose, although some have only one. One disk may have English only. A second may list Spanish and English, allowing you to select between the two languages through the menu options. Still another disk may offer multiple languages and so-called "director's tracks." Any of these disks may include DVS in English as well. (I have yet to run across a single foreign-language DVS track here in the U.S.).

Finding and Using DVDs with Audio Description

Examples of DVS markingsThere are various ways to identify disks with DVS content. On a DVD (including a Blu-ray DVD) you'll find any available DVD audio tracks in the audio languages menu. Select DVS as you would any language option. The exact term used may vary. Some newer disks also include an easy startup screen where the DVS can be selected as soon as the disk is loaded, without the need to navigate through complicated menus.

Another way to simplify this process depends on your DVD player and remote. Some machines offer an "Audio" button that lets you jump from one audio track to the next, with no menu access required at all.

A number of titles are released in multiple DVD versions; some have DVS and others do not. In some cases, later rental versions of a DVD have the descriptive video track removed, although it was available with earlier versions. One major movie distributor has recently agreed to stop deleting the DVS tracks on future rental releases.

In some cases, you may find that only the standard DVD release has DVS included, while the Blu-ray disk does not have that option. However, in the case of one recent film, The Incredibles, I found that the opposite was true; only the Blu-ray release included audio description. Read the packages carefully before you buy, and be aware that the details of DVS apply only to the feature film itself. In general, DVS is not available for supplemental content.

Broadcast and Cable Shows

Unfortunately, with TV broadcasts, DVS is somewhat more confusing. If you search around on your cable TV box, you may find a setting that allows you to select for DVS or audio description. However, chances are you won't find any DVS programming there. Why not? For one thing, few shows that are broadcast have DVS available. Unlike closed captioning for the hearing impaired, DVS is not yet a federally mandated requirement. Beyond that there seems to be no clear explanation. The DVS option has not been implemented on any system I have ever checked. When audio descriptions actually are broadcast, you'll find them under alternative languages, generally listed as "Spanish."

Technical Limitations

A collection of children’s movies with DVSIf you use TiVo® or another DVR system to record programs, you may be wondering whether you can record DVS programs to watch at a later time. The answer is yes (at least for TiVo), but it is a little complicated. As mentioned before, you'll probably find that any programs with DVS on your cable system are broadcast under "Spanish." The problem is that many other programs are actually broadcast in Spanish through the same menu selection. You'll have to select a default language to record on your TiVo. If you select Spanish and there is a DVS track, you'll get DVS English, but if there is Spanish, you'll get Spanish instead. Even more confusing is the fact that sometimes a station will broadcast with a second language track turned on but no sound feed; you can end up with no audio at all on your recording.

The confusion doesn't end there. A few channels rebroadcast entirely unrelated audio on the Spanish track.  For example, one station here in Atlanta broadcasts local weather information on that second audio channel. I think this is a fairly common practice; I'm aware of a station doing something similar in Dallas.

You need to know one more thing about language selections on broadcast programs. If you tune into a channel that broadcasts with Spanish as the primary language, you generally will not find audio with the "Spanish" selection. The audio will be found under "English." (HBO Latino is a good example of this situation.) In most cases, though, the best way to find a DVS track is to search for "Spanish" audio options.

If you have ever watched a recorded show with closed captioning, you probably discovered that you can turn it on and off at will. You can select between various audio tracks in the same way while a show is being broadcast. When you use a DVR to record, however, most systems (including TiVo) only record the active audio selection. This means that once a program is recorded in a format other than nondescribed English, you cannot change the recording. It also means that if you switch settings mid-recording, the way you made changes is exactly how the recorded show will play back. If you switch in the middle from English to DVS, the description will start in the middle of the program. Closed captions are recorded separately and can be switched on and off at will, even when playing back a recording. As far as I am aware, all of the DVRs (such as TiVo) record only the active audio track to save disk space; audio tracks take a lot more space than the data for the text used in closed captioning.

Issues with Local Stations

From WGBH I obtained a list of PBS programs supplied with audio description. However, I was never able to locate any of these programs through our local PBS affiliate. Ultimately, the general manager of our Atlanta PBS station explained that they had stopped broadcasting with the DVS option. "Georgia Public Broadcasting has broadcast descriptive video in the past," I was told, "but ran into a significant amount of confusion among viewers who received it, didn't want it, and didn't know how to turn it off because of the variety of methods of selecting or de-selecting it on the various televisions from multiple manufacturers. Our engineers found themselves spending a considerable amount of time responding to complaints and then talking viewers through the options. Initially we thought the calls would end after a time, but they kept coming. So eventually we abandoned the practice of delivering DVS. We received very few complaints about it no longer being offered." He went on to say, "Now that we're broadcasting digitally, DVS is handled differently from in the past. We'll take another look at what would be involved in offering it and what the likely impact would be for viewers who don't want it. I'll be happy to get back to you once we know more."

That exchange occurred over a year ago. So far, the station has offered no additional information. I suspect that few people complained because few people knew the programming was available in the first place. It is hard for people to complain about losing something when they don't know they've lost it.

Ours is not the only station that doesn't supply available DVS programming. I have tried to record shows with DVS from two other local stations that receive some described programing from network sources. Although I tried on several occasions, the shows simply were not broadcast that way. I tried to contact both of the affiliates, but neither one bothered to respond to my inquiries.

Confusing Networks

Not only does the existence of a program with DVS fail to guarantee that it will be broadcast on your local affiliate. Some networks, such as Nickelodeon, maintain multiple subnetworks with differing standards. The original Nickelodeon channel shows certain programs with DVS, such as Dora the Explorer, yet the exact same shows on Nick 2 do not include DVS. I attempted to contact Nickelodeon multiple times for an explanation. So far, the network has failed to respond.

Local Theaters

You may be surprised to learn that you can watch a limited number of films with DVS in the movie theater. Sometimes the service is available the first week of a run, or even on the first day of a new release! Interestingly, description may be available in the theaters for films that do not have DVS when the DVD version appears.

To enjoy DVS in the theater, a moviegoer wears special headphones with a built-in audio receiver. A data disc is loaded into a special system that simulcasts the audio description only. The user hears the description through the headphones while listening to the rest of the movie sound over the main speakers in the theater.

The best source of information about described movies is a website called Captionfish (<http://www.captionfish.com>). Be aware that the primary function of the site is to list theaters that show movies with the much more widely available captioning services for the hearing impaired. Go to the filter and select "Descriptive Video." Once you find a described movie that is airing in your community, check with the theater. Since few patrons use DVS, often theaters don't maintain the equipment or keep the headsets charged. I have attended movies that were scheduled to run with DVS, only to be told that it was not present on the supplied media. When I have talked in advance with theater managers, they have been more than happy to make sure that DVS is working properly. DVS is still fairly new in some places, so be patient. Over time, more shows probably will be available, and the system should work better in general.

Live Events and Tours

From time to time, audio description is available at live programs and events. The descriptions are scripted to some degree, but since the event is live, they are created or modified on the fly as the situation warrants. As an example, we have taken Kendra to described programs at the Big Apple Circus, where she wore headphones similar to the ones used in the theater for DVS. A pair of audio describers, much like sportscasters, explained various aspects of the show. Not only were the actions described; the animals, costumes, and details of the performance were explained as well. Blind audience members learned how big the animals were, what they might feel like, and when an acrobat was jumping onto a horse or swinging on a trapeeze overhead. Pretty exciting!

On a recent school field trip to our aquarium here in Atlanta, Kendra was loaned a set of headphones and a small digital recorder. The recorder contained descriptions of various exhibits, and she could call them up at will. With this system, Kendra heard about the contents of nearby exhibits while her friends were looking at them. Without audio descriptions, the trip would have been a boring day of walking past big walls of glass. Instead, Kendra shared an exciting day of learning and fun with her friends.

Last year, while we attended the 2011 NFB convention in Orlando, Florida, we took the kids to Disneyworld. We found interesting accommodations in the guest services office, such as a large tactile map of the park. We also were able to borrow a machine similar to the one Kendra used at the Atlanta Aquarium. Disney, however, takes things a step farther. As the user gets within a certain distance of a particular section of the park, such as "Tomorrowland," the appropriate description begins automatically. The action during certain rides is also described as the user rides through them. Again, this was a delightful treat for our daughter. I understand that Disney intends to expand this service, adding more rides to the available list and installing the system in other Disney parks.

Information and Misinformation

While searching for DVS programs on the website of the TBS network, I found an indication that they do not broadcast any DVS programming. This was surprising, since TBS's sister network, Turner Classic Movies, lists about one hundred films normally broadcast with DVS. On a whim, I checked TBS several times and found at least one movie being broadcast with audio description.

Some months later, I was watching A Christmas Story, a show that TBS runs for twenty-four hours each year on Christmas Day. On the next-to-last showing for the year, I switched to Spanish, and what do you know? DVS was running! I set my TiVo to record the last showing of the year with the audio switched to Spanish, and it worked. Now I have a copy of A Christmas Story with audio description stored on my DVR, ready to watch next Christmas season.

If all of this sounds too confusing to bother with, I want to point out that DVS follows the pattern we have seen with many other programs and services for the blind. At first they aren't available. Then, when they become options, access is very complicated. Over time, the system is simplified, and bugs are worked out. Ultimately, these services and adaptations become commonplace.

DVDs with DVS are relatively simple to use now, especially if sighted assistance is available when selecting the correct menu items. As I mentioned before, newer disks sometimes provide a direct way to reach the DVS option. Once developers recognize the need for an accessible system to activate the adapted programming, the situation may improve. Finding and accessing DVS in TV programs remains complicated, but other services are straightforward. These include described live performances and prerecorded descriptions at theme parks and other venues. Programs like these have meant a great deal to our daughter, and we seek them out whenever possible.

In some ways, DVS is the counterpart for the blind and visually impaired to closed captioning for the hearing impaired and deaf communities. Broadcasters were slow to adapt to the need for closed captioning until the federal government required compliance under multiple acts, including the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 and an additional act passed in 2002. It now appears that the need for DVS is coming to the forefront, with Sec. 202 of S. 3304, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. The act is a fairly complicated piece of legislation, but it is clear that part of the package is intended to make DVS programming for broadcast more available, starting first in the major television markets and adding more markets and programming over time. Section 204 even specifies that "... functions shall be accompanied by audio output ..." to assist the blind in navigating through menus to access these features, so there is a clear potential for progress on the horizon.

Do It Yourself!

DVS is great, but it can't begin to answer all of the questions a blind child may have about places, actions, and events. As a parent or teacher, you don't have to wait for a recording to explain visual aspects of a walk down the street or a trip to the store. The more information your child or student gains about the world around him or her, the faster he/she will build a knowledge base and develop a concrete understanding of the fascinating world in which we live.


<http://main.wgbh.org/wgbh/pages/mag/alldvsmovies.html> - This link will take you to a list of over 800 films that have been described by WGBH in Boston. Many films that are not on this list have been described by other services. Once you know which movies have been described, you can keep an eye out for your favorites. Check to find out whether the DVD you encounter or the broadcast on your schedule runs with DVS.

If you've bought many recent DVDs for your kids, especially releases by Dreamworks, you may discover that you already own a number of described videos. This time last year, our family owned one or two movies with DVS for the kids. Now we have a shelf with roughly forty videos for the kids to watch, including cartoons and other animations as well as live action films. We even found a collection of all six Star Wars films in Blu-ray with DVS. I must say those movies make our family movie nights a lot more fun for me!

What's on the Television?

The following list contains a number of shows provided by various networks. Keep in mind that local affiliates may or may not rebroadcast these shows with the DVS options available.

PBS, Daytime Shows



            Barney and Friends

            Between the Lions

            Curious George


            Design Squad

            Dragon Tales

            Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman

            Franny's Feet

            It's A Big Big World

            Martha Speaks

            Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (Select episodes of the series air with description.)

            Real Simple

            Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat

            Sesame Street (Some episodes are offered with DVS, though it is unclear which ones from what I was able to find.)

            Simply Ming (Select episodes of this series air with description.)

            Thomas and Friends

            The Victory Garden (Select episodes of this series air with description.)

PBS, Prime Time



            Masterpiece Contemporary

            Lidia Celebrates America

            American Experience

            NCIS (Dick Charles)

            NCIS: Los Angeles

            Criminal Minds (Bob Gelbart)

            Without a Trace (Dick Charles)

            CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Bob Gelbart)


            Dora the Explorer (Narrators include Kate Loman and Tom Glinn.)

            Go, Diego, Go! (Descriptions for all of the series are read by Kate Loman.)

            Blue's Clues

            The Fairly Odd Parents (Descriptions are read by Joel Snyder, who also reads the descriptions in the scripts for Sesame Street.)


            My Life as a Teenage Robot

            Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide (Joel Snyder)

            Rugrats (Kate Loman reads the descriptions for all 1990s episodes and all from 2000-2003, with Tom Glinn reading the descriptions for the final season.)

            Jimmy Neutron (Tom Glinn reads the descriptions for seasons 1 and 2; Kate Loman reads the descriptions for the rest of the series.)

            Team Umizoomi and Bubble Guppies (Unknown narration reads the script and announces for Milli, Geo, and Bot and Molly, Gilly, Nonny, Mr Grouper, Goby, Deema and Oona and instrumentals in all the new episodes.)

            Lazy Town (Scripts read by Gina Deere at CaptionMax were previously aired on Nick.)


            The Simpsons (Miles Neff reads the scripts.)

Turner Classic Movies (TCM)

           Various films (over 100) are listed on WGBH's DVS page on TCM

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