Video description today: For their audience, words are worth a thousand pictures

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A visually impaired person watching CBS’s Survivor cannot see the ousted member’s torch extinguished, doesn’t know what Bart writes on the blackboard in The Simpsons‘ opening sequence, and can’t laugh at the antics of Eddie the terrier on Frasier. But thanks to Descriptive Video Service, he or she can understand that the silence on an episode of ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s “Our Mutual Friend” means that Bella is gazing at the fire with tear-filled eyes after scorning a suitor, that the splashing on Nature signifies grizzly cubs out for a swim, or that Arthur doesn’t look much like a real aardvark.

DVS, a service of WGBH, Boston, has been around since 1987, and in those 13 years PBS has been the lone broadcast network to regularly carry programs that are accessible to the blind. By tuning their TV sets to the secondary audio programming (SAP) channel, those who have trouble seeing can enjoy Mystery!, Nova, The Living Edens, The American Experience, Wishbone, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and a smattering of other programs in which a narrator fills the pauses in dialogue to describe the characters’ features, clothing, and gestures; setting and scenery; action sequences and other purely visual elements.

DVS, which operates under the aegis of WGBH’s Media Access Group, provides video description not only for public television but also for some films shown on the Turner Classic Movie Network, in IMAX theaters, and some first-run film releases, such as Titanic and the upcoming The Patriot. There’s also a DVS Home Video direct mail catalog offering more than 200 titles.

It’s not an honor its staff particularly wants to claim, but DVS has a virtual lock on the video description market. The only other company of any size providing video description is the Narrative Television Network, a cable operation based in Tulsa, Okla.

But all that could change if the FCC goes through with the plan it outlined in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last November. The commission proposed that broadcasters affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks in the top 25 markets provide roughly four hours of video-described programming per week within 18 months of its ruling (with incremental increases likely over the next several years). The rule would also cover the largest cable and satellite operators, but not, however, PBS.

As Larry Goldberg, director of the Media Access Group at WGBH, explains, “The FCC left PBS out of the mandate due to its good voluntary efforts so far, and because of its limited funds during digital transition.” However, the amount of video description aired regularly through approximately 170 public television stations (covering 80 percent of U.S. households) would put it far above compliance levels for many years to come. DVS has described more than 1,600 hours of PBS programming to date.

More than 100 comments and replies have been filed on the issue, and the FCC is reviewing the matter. Commission spokesman David Fiske said it was impossible to predict when a ruling would be made.

The arguments for and against video description mirror the debate waged over closed captioning for the deaf less than a decade ago. The National Association of Broadcasters and the Motion Picture Association of America oppose any FCC mandate. In its filed comments, the NAB claims (1) the FCC lacks the authority to prescribe video description, (2) such requirements amount to compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment, (3) the costs of providing the service have been grossly underestimated, (4) many stations already use the SAP to broadcast Spanish-language audio, and (5) investing in analog equipment now is wasteful in light of the transition to digital broadcasting.

Supporters include the National Coalition for Video Access, made up of 17 advocacy groups and associations for the disabled and elderly, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, American Council for the Blind, and the National Association for Visually Handicapped. The coalition argues that many of the opposing arguments were dealt with during the closed captioning debate (such as the authority and compelled speech issues), and that the visually impaired should have the same access to this crucial medium as the hard of hearing.

The coalition’s coordinators are Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl, who run Metropolitan Washington Ear, a nonprofit radio reading service in the nation’s capital region.

“Once you’ve experienced video description, you’re aware of how much information you can get, just how visual the world is,” said Cody Pfanstiehl.

An art, not a science

The couple pioneered the use of audio description during live theater performances beginning in 1981. In 1988 they described the American Playhouse series for PBS even before the advent of the SAP channel. (In this early experiment, they simulcasted the description over the radio reading service in sync with the telecast.) The Pfanstiehls trained WGBH’s first video describers and have since gone on to train describers all over the world.

To the Pfanstiehls, video description is an art, not a science.

“The blind have been overdosed with generalizations–‘she’s wearing a glamorous gown.’ Better to say ‘a blue velvet gown.’ Better still to say, ‘a clingy blue velvet gown,’ ” said Margaret Pfanstiehl, who has been visually impaired since childhood.

The video describer should not be editorializing or telling the visually impaired audience what a character is feeling. “You don’t say, ‘he gets angry.’ You say, ‘he clenches his fist,’ ” said Cody Pfanstiehl.

To describe a program for PBS, the seven DVS describers each work at a computer station equipped with a VCR, a Mac and special software. The describer first listens to the program with the picture off, experiencing the show as a blind person would, noting where there are gaps in the dialogue for inserting comments and what sound effects need clarifying. Once the script is readied and researched (determining, say, that David Copperfield is wearing a bowler, not a derby, the voice-over talent records the script atop the original audio.

“We’re paying attention to the way the music crescendos, a grunt, an explosion. I tell my trainees to let the show do a lot of the work for us. Use those components as anchors for your descriptions. Sometimes we have too much time to say things, sometimes we have too little, but we’re trying to work with the pace of the show,” said Kate Roosevelt, a post-production supervisor at DVS.

The goal of video description “is to stay invisible, for want of a better word. We’re a companion. The person is supposed to forget about us. The language we use is not flowery. We like to think it’s efficient and economical,” said Roosevelt.

For Jeanie Wood, a retired Russian teacher who lives in Springfield, Va., watching a described program takes the pressure off her husband to fill in the blanks. Wood, who has been blind since infancy, says sometimes when she’s home alone watching TV, she is baffled by an ending that is expressed only visually and has to call friends the next day to find out: “Well, did he kiss her or walk out?!”

She remembered her first experience hearing video description, around 1990.

“It was an American Playhouse production. I was so excited about it, and I was watching it with my 10-year-old son. But at one point a serious sex scene came on, and it was being described very graphically. I didn’t know whether it was a blessing or not,” she said, laughing.

Benefiting more than the blind

There are an estimated 12 million visually impaired people in the United States, most of them elderly and poor–not a sexy demographic for commercial broadcasters with ads to sell. The hearing-impaired audience, in comparison, is roughly twice as large. Advocates recognize that video description will never be as pervasive as closed captioning and that it doesn’t lend itself to certain types of programming (news and talking head shows, where there is little break in the audio for inserting comments; sporting events, in which the play-by-play already provides good interpretation of the action). The FCC proposal emphasizes primetime and children’s programming.

One emerging use for video description appears to be to help learning disabled children process information. The narration helps them read body language and reinforces important elements to focus on, experts say.

Many viewers with good eyesight apparently enjoy or at least tolerate the video description. The Narrative Television Network, a program distributor that provides hundreds of hours of described programming (mostly classic movies and old TV series like Matlock) annually to Nostalgia Television, Kaleidoscope, and other cable channels, puts its description on an open channel. Even though the description is heard whether they want it or not, 60 percent of NTN’s audience is sighted, says company President Jim Stovall.

“When I started this,” Stovall says, “I never conceived that one sighted person would sit there and listen. It really is a nice process.”

One of the problems that both DVS and NTN face is getting the word out about their services. Both offer printed program guides and have audio-accessible Internet sites, but many visually impaired people don’t know that described programming is even available. The information is not printed in most newspaper TV listings.

Wood, for example, was under the impression that Masterpiece Theatre was no longer being described and was thrilled to learn from a reporter that it was. Pauletta Feldman, a family services coordinator for Visually Impaired Preschool Services in Louisville, Ky., whose son is blind, said her local public TV station doesn’t broadcast video description. However, Mike Clark, director of program operations for Kentucky ETV, said that the Louisville transmitter had been broadcasting video description for more than a year.

Goldberg estimated that it costs about $4,000 per hour to describe a program. WGBH’s DVS division has an annual budget of $1.4 million.

It’s no coincidence that most of the PBS shows that are described are WGBH productions. Goldberg said station President Henry Becton made a deliberate decision to support video description as WGBH did with closed captioning in the ’80s. “Thirty-40-50 percent of our national productions build in the cost of DVS into their production budgets, so we don’t have to spend federal dollars,” said Goldberg.

The NAB’s arguments that video description should be postponed until after digital conversion galls Goldberg.

“I don’t know anyone who believes analog will be totally gone by 2006,” he said. “Maybe it’s 2010. So you’re saying to blind people, ‘OK, TV has been around since the ’30s, but you have to wait another 10 years before you can have access to it. That’s a long wait.”

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