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Audio Description (Video Description) on TV


What Shows Are Audio Described?

My wife is blind, and the value of video description can not be overstated.  Video description takes television and movies to a new level for people who can't see, and for those of us trying to act as their eyes.  I can't find the words to thank you for your time and fine work.
- Mark Bost, Sterling VA, November 2013

Audio GuideAccessible User Interfaces

December 20, 2016, was the deadline for compliance with the FCC's order for manufacturers of video devices to offer accessible user interfaces to visually impaired customers. Check out the FCC Fact Sheet: Television and Set-Top Box Controls, Menus, and Program Guides.  Comcast lead the way on this two years ago, and now it's everyone else's turn to comply.  Preliminary feedback is positive for Apple TV, AT&T DirecTV Genie (only), Comcast X1, Samsung TV, TiVO Roamio, Roku, and Verizon FiOS TV cable box, though quality may vary.  Check below for information, or contact your own cable or satellite TV supplier for "what's available" and "how to" information regarding Talking Guides or audio for remotes.  You can report findings on our forum, and you can report problems to us at advocacy@acb.org.  (Note:  per the FCC, "compliance is not required until December 20, 2018 for relatively small subscription television service operators and systems."  As far as we known, the only request for an extension is from Honda for its rear-seat entertainment system.)


How Do I Receive Audio (Video) Description?  (Updated March 16, 2017)

SAP FeatureTerminology

The FCC originally designated audio description for television as video description, but the ACB and ADP have objected to this alteration of the term for audio description.  The networks are divided and use four different terms!  Also, note that in the following discussion, the term SAP (Second Audio Program channel or feature) is used.  However, SAP is exclusively an analog television feature, and now everything is digital.  For convenience, most people (including us) continue to reference the term SAP, even though it is technically not correct.  There does not seem to be a uniform or easy way to reference the feature in another manner.

General Considerations

Provider-Specific Information

The amount of detail shown for the various providers below varies based on the amount of information we could find or provided to us by users.  You can help by sending the webmaster additional information!

Provider

Service or Product Provider How to Access Audio Description or Voice Menus Using Their Devices Provider's Info Links

Using an Antenna

There should be an audio setup menu on your TV remote.  The audio description audio channel might be labeled SAP (Second Audio Program), MTS (Multichannel Television Sound), Secondary Audio, or maybe even Spanish, Español, or Portuguese.  It may be active only for described shows (otherwise often silent).  Newer TVs MAY have an audio option ("talking guide") for the remote, and those manufactured after December 2016 should definitely have this feature.

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Using a Converter Box and Analog TV

There may be an SAP option on the box's remote to access the alternate audio channel.  See Conversion to Digital Television (DTV) and Second Audio Program (SAP) for possible assistance.  None of their remotes are likely to have an audio option.

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Amazon Fire TV and Tablets

New
Feb '17

Amazon has made voice menus available on its Fire products, and sometimes this extends to apps running on Fire, such as Netflix.  In addition, "Blind and low vision customers can enjoy screen reading capabilities when using Amazon Video on devices such as the Microsoft Xbox One and One S, Sony PS4 game consoles, certain Roku streaming devices, as well as many smart TVs and BluRay players, including certain TVs and BluRay players from Hisense, LG, Samsung, and Sony."

Accessibility Updates for Fire TV and Amazon Video Customers

AT&T DirecTV

Updated
Mar '17

AT&T now owns DirecTV.  The first link to the right tells you how to enable video description (but we tell you below and suggest a shortcut); the second link discusses the audio guide.  The new audio guide appears to work only on the main Genie DVR, not on the C51 remotes.  To activate, press INFO, Right Arrow once, Down Arrow 3 times.  You should receive a verbal instruction on how to activate speech, and you press Select to keep the audio guide active.  This can be programmed into a Harmony Remote, for example, for one-button access.  [One user who did not have the "right" Genie box was offered a free upgrade, so it never hurts to ask...]

The following information is based on a June 2016 installation.  AT&T will likely install either a regular receiver (no DVR) or a GENIE DVR (model HR54-500 is typical).  If you get a Genie DVR, additional TVs get a smaller unit (C51-100) that communicates with the main unit.  The supplied remote for the Genie does not have quick SAP access; however, if you use a universal remote (either supplied with the non-DVR box or on your own with a DVR), the green button (the second of four colored buttons) should toggle (click it twice) between main audio and SAP (when available).  There may be a 5-second delay before the sound returns.  If you use the supplied remote, or a universal remote without a Green button, use the following sequence to turn on SAP:  Info key, four Right arrows (which brings you to Audio), two Down arrows (which puts you at SAP), Select.  To return to regular audio, follow the same sequence except only use one Down arrow.  Note that when you change programs, the audio automatically reverts to main channel.  There is no separate number for disability services; use the main number:  800-347-3288.

How do I enable my Video Description?

Talking Guide available for DirecTV Genie DVR

AT&T U‑verse

You can call their Disability Resources number at 800-772-3140.  We have no information on availability of a Talking Guide with U-verse, though DirecTV (above) does have one.

Video Description for U-verse TV

Bright House

See Spectrum below.

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Charter

See Spectrum below.

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Comcast

Updated
Jan '17

From our Discussion List:  "I have the most accessible cable box and remote around ... They nailed it!  It's their new Contour 2 box.  My remote has voice access ..."  (Debra, January 2017); and "Comcast voice control is truly awesome. The ability to turn AD on and off and use DVR and On Demand independently is wonderful."  (Jason, August 2016)  If you are having problems, check the Support Center link or call their Customer Service Center for People With Disabilities at 866-668-6703 7 days a week from 8am to midnight Eastern time.  You may also request that they mail you a Braille or Large Print Channel Lineup for your local area or order a large button remote.  Check out their Talking Guide enhancement to their XFINITY X-1 cable boxes.  (See more information on how to use the Talking Guide and read a Comcast blog post and read or listen to Comcast channels innovations to help blind and visually impaired subscribers from February 2016.)  Once activated (call the Support Center if necessary), the Talking Guide will speak channel and program information and guide you for activating video description.  You can even enter your commands via voice.  Enhancements are being added over time without the need to replace the hardware.  Braille or Large Print Welcome Kits for Xfinity services are available from the service center.  Listen to a podcast by Cullen Gallagher on how to use the XFINITY X-1 Accessibility features (excerpt courtesy of ACB Radio's Main Menu podcast from 2/20/15, David Tanner host).  Note that the introductory music covering the voice goes away after 20 seconds.

Comcast Accessibility Support Center

Cox

Cox offers video description (on Standard, HD, and Contour receivers and DVRs), voice commands (via Contour voice remote), and voice guidance (talking guide).  Their Accessibility page has links to each of these features.  Accessibility support:  888-266-1304.

Cox Accessibility

Dish

According to the Dish website, all of their receivers support audio description.  Text to speech is supported on their Hopper 2, Hopper 3, and Wally receivers.  See their Accessibility page and follow the links to your specific receiver for information on how to access these features.  Call 855-995-4829 for information about accessibility.  You can also listen to a user-provided video on how to use the text-to-speech features. Added 2/10/17

Dish's Accessibility Features

Mediacom

As of December 2016, no information about accessibility or video description was found on their website; but in September 2014 a user reported that Mediacom ".... is finally passing audio description through! To access it, go to the setup menu on the digital cable box.  Under audio, select Spanish.  The DVS setting seems to have no effect, just the regular audio is available there."

None found

Spectrum

Spectrum was formed in 2016 combining Bright House, Charter, and Time Warner Cable.  They now offer an audible TV Guide, and they ask that you call 844-762-1301 to request it.  Initial user feedback seems to indicate you must use a laptop to access the guide; a user reports, "this particular solution does not appear ready for prime time"!  Former Time Warner Cable (TWC) customers can access description via their Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8420HDC DVR or a Cisco DVR by using the remote to access Settings, then Audio/SAP, Digital, then select Secondary Language and back out (regrettably an awkward series of key presses).  We don't know about talking guides on those TWC DVRs, and local TWC technical reps have indicated a lack of knowledge on this matter.  Other newer DVRs may offer a simpler solution:  see the Talking Guide link to the right.  Also, a Charter user reported in August 2016 that on his DVR, the following sequence is used to turn on description:  "press menu; press OK twice to get the set-up; arrow down twice to get audio set-up; press OK; press right arrow to change English to Espanol."

Spectrum Accessible Solutions page

Spectrum Talking Guide

Time Warner Cable

See Spectrum above.

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TiVO

New
Jan '17

While TiVO is a "box," not a service provider, we include it here because many people use this box to access their recorded programs.  To activate or deactivate their screen reader, press and hold button A for two seconds.  To activate an audio description track, press and hold button C for two seconds.  Pressing C again will either switch to the next AD track or return to regular audio.  If you press and hold C but get no response, try pressing CLEAR - the leftmost button on the bottom row of your remote - to clear any overlays.  Then press and hold C again.

TiVO Accessibility

Verizon FIOS

Verizon now offers text to speech functionality for the Fios TV on-screen guide.  If you are disabled and your set-top box is not compatable with text-to-speech, you can swap it out for no charge, including installation.  For more information, contact the Verizon Center for Customers with Disabilities at 800-974-6006 Monday through Friday 8:30 am to 5:00 pm or email them at vccd@verizon.com.

Verizon Descriptive Video Service

Verizon Text-to-Speech Guide

The bottom line is that there is no single standardized method for receiving description, but most systems rely on the concept of a "Second Audio Program," or SAP, even though the terminology is incorrect.  We rely on user experience; so if you have been able to receive audio description, please write the webmaster (via the link at the bottom of this page) and tell us your experience, including HOW you receive your signal (i.e., which cable company and cable box), what settings you use, what TV you have, and your location.

You may wish to also note that there is a conflict between the use of the Second Audio Program (SAP) channel for description versus Spanish Language in the USA.  The "plan" is to carry description on its own audio channel in the future (i.e., not a shared purpose channel), but we are a long way off from equipment standardization in this area.  The FCC concedes this conflict of legacy equipment in paragraphs 28-33 of its Report and Order and gives local stations leeway on which signal to pass, until such time as multiple audio channels are readily available to end users.  [As of July 2014, there is no plan in the works to utilize additional audio channels.  The single-channel "SAP" concept appears to be "it" for the foreseeable future...]

Who Must Provide Video Description?

Currently, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, USA, the Disney Channel, The History Channel (replaced Nickelodeon July 1, 2015), TNT, and TBS are each required to provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming per calendar quarter.  PBS and TCM have long voluntarily provided description (several other stations like The CW provide some now), and we believe Nickelodeon will continue.  Whether or not their "description track" or Secondary Audio Program (SAP) is available to you is a different question.

Local Stations:  Officially, as of July 1, 2015, the FCC's mandate applies to the top 60 markets.  Outside of those markets, the requirement to pass along the description is voluntary at the present time ... but CALL your provider for help anyway!  Many of them supply it regardless of the market.  In fact, according to the FCC, although only ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates located in the top 60 markets must provide video description, any broadcast station, regardless of its market size, that is affiliated or otherwise associated with any television network, must pass through video description when the network provides it (which is essentially always done), if the station has the technical capability necessary to do so**, and that technical capability is not being used for another purpose related to the programming (for instance, Spanish language).

Satellite providers (Dish Network and DirecTV) must pass through SAP for the top five non-terrestrial networks Disney, History Channel, TBS, TNT, and USA regardless of a subscriber's location. However in the cases where a local affiliate of a terrestrial network (i.e., a local station affiliated with a network like ABC, picked up and fed as a convenience to subscribers in the area) is not broadcasting SAP, the satellite provider is not required to pass along the SAP from the stations' networks since the satellite provider gets the signal from local stations.  If the local affiliates are broadcasting video description, the satellite companies must pass that signal on to subscribers if they have the technical capability to do so**.

Cable Companies (like Comcast or Time Warner) must pass along description from the cable stations (like USA and TNT), as long as they have over 50,000 subscribers.  If any local affiliate (a station picked up and passed along by the cable company) is broadcasting SAP, then they must pass that signal on to subscribers if they have the technical capability to do so**.

NOTE:  Lots of people are reporting success after contacting their local cable or satellite provider for help!  PLEASE CALL THEM FOR ASSISTANCE.  If they are not cooperative or unsuccessful in resolving your situation, you can tell them you will be filing a complaint with the FCC that they will have to answer; and if they still don't resolve your problem, then file the complaint (link below)!

Here's another approach offered on our list server by Timothy in Dec '14:

... since 2012 when VD was mandated, I personally contacted all my local affiliates.  CBS had VD enabled since I knew about it, and that goes for PBS as well, but I had to personally contact my ABC, FOX, and NBC affiliates to get VD enabled and working without glitches.  Thankfully the people I E-mailed were quite nice and willing to work with me to work out all the kinks in the system.  Before I contacted these local affiliates though, VD was either hit or miss, or nonexistent entirely.

I primarily used:  http://esupport.fcc.gov/vpd-search/search.action#scrollThere to contact the person or people in charge of the closed captioning concerns, and they usually know what to do, or to which department to transfer these requests, though it does take a bit of explanation. It would be easier if you knew some of the technical bits behind switching to the VD feed, but explaining yourself in a polite manner does the trick. Also, an explanation of Video Description, along with who provides it, wouldn't go amiss.

** Reference FCC Report and Order 11-126 paragraphs 23-27, where technical capability to do so is defined as having "virtually all necessary equipment and infrastructure to do so, except for items that would be of minimal cost."  These five FCC paragraphs, particularly paragraph 27, demonstrate a minimal tolerance for excuses in this area, especially over time. 

How Much Description Are Networks Providing?

The Audio Description Project has started monitoring the amount of audio described shows each TV network is providing.  We will do this twice a year:  once in the October/November timeframe and again around April/May. 

Here are our results reported in AVERAGE HOURS PER WEEK, broadcast networks first, followed by nonbroadcast (cable) networks.  Data for Nickelodeon (no longer mandated) was not readily available.  Congratulations to the USA Network for maintaining its #1 rank by a significant margin for all three measured periods!

Average Hours/Week Fall 2016 Spring 2016 Fall 2015
Network Type Reqd Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank
ABC B Yes 7.3 7 8.8 7 6.3 9
CBS B Yes 8.9 6 8.1 9 6.4 8
FOX B Yes 11.1 5 11.5 6 8.9 7
NBC B Yes 7.3 7 8.5 8 5.5 10
PBS B No n/a n/a 69.5 2 58.6 3
                 
Disney NB Yes 4.3 9 4.9 10 4.6 11
History NB Yes 20.4 4 18 5 10.9 6
TBS NB Yes 45.1 3 41.6 4 49.8 4
TCM NB No n/a n/a n/a n/a 23.5 5
TNT NB Yes 76.4 2 65.8 3 75.6 2
USA NB Yes 115.9 1 117 1 109.5 1

KEYType (B=Broadcast; NB=NonBroadcast); Reqd (Yes=mandated by FCC) 

Accessible Billing Statements From Cable Providers

We have been asked to include the following information here.  If you have additions or updates, please send them to the webmaster using the link at the bottom of the page.

Links of Interest

Another Option

There is a product called TV Speak, by Code Factory, which allows you to access the SAP channel sound via your PC without a TV.  User Sam Joehl has provided the following helpful information in September 2012:

The program is self-voicing so all functions of the interface speak and no screen reader is required within the application.  Users can nonvisually turn on and off the secondary audio.  The drawback that I have found with the current version of TVSpeak is that it appears to only work with NTSC tuner cards to receive over-the-air [OTA] broadcasts.  It did not even detect my Ceton tuner card, so it was not a solution that worked for me.  It is a solution that would work for users receiving OTA broadcasts.

Historical Info on Video Description (Pre-2012)

CAUTION:  Over time, links in this section [like those to COAT, now defunct] will cease to work!

FCC Votes to Reinstate Video Description

On August 25, 2011, the FCC was finally able to vote (unanimously) to reinstate video description, effective July 1, 2012.  ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, USA, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, TNT, and TBS are each required to provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming per calendar quarter.  Read Commissioner Clyburn's statement.  [deleted expired link].

NOTE:  The FCC's order applies (at this time) to the Top 25 TV Markets.  [deleted expired link]  The markets near the cutoff are:  St Louis (21), Portland OR (22), Charlotte (23), Pittsburgh (24), and Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville (25).  Just over the line are Baltimore (26), Indianapolis (27, formerly 25), San Diego (28), and Nashville (29).  Indianapolis was the only area in the top 40 to move more than 1 position in the last year.  In six years, the top 60 markets must be covered, adding 10 more markets per year after that.

FCC Adopts Two Key Provisions

In early March, 2011, the FCC adopted two key provisions of the newly enacted 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act without the need for further public discussion:

Further details are available at COAT.  At the same time, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has praised CBS, FOX, PBS, TCM, and TNT for having voluntarily continued producing some shows with description even after the FCC's mandate was overturned in 2002. 

Video Description Legislation Becomes Law

President Obama Signing BillOn October 8, 2010, President Obama signed The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Earlier, the House passed HR 3101 (Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009) and the Senate passed a modified S 3304 (Equal Access to 21st Century Communications Act), which was closer to HR 3101 than their original version, then voted on some technical amendments (S 3828).  The House then voted on the modified Senate bill on September 28, 2010,which was subsequently signed by President Obama.  Passage of those bills required a lot of lobbying by members of COAT and others, so congratulations to all who helped!  [NOTE:  COAT was an organization formed to help ensure passage of this bill.  Having achieved its objective, it was eventually disbanded in 2015.]

The new law assures restoration of the FCC's authority to mandate video description, at least for the largest networks in the largest population areas (although not for one year, October 2011).  Now actually being able to receive description on your TV is a different story, but this is the start that we've been waiting EIGHT long years for!

Key Links

Summary (focusing on items affecting people who are blind or have low vision)

Video Description

• After 1 year, restores FCC rules requiring 4 hours per week of video description on 9 television channels (top 4 broadcast networks and top 5 cable channels) in the top 25 most populated markets.  [See UPDATE above]
• After 2 years, requires FCC to report to Congress on video description.
• After 4 years, permits the FCC to increase video description to 7 hours per week on 9 television channels.
• After 6 years, requires the FCC to apply the video description requirements to the top 60 most populated markets (not just the top 25 most populated markets).
• After 9 years, requires the FCC to report to Congress on the need for additional markets to carry video description.
• After 10 years, permits the FCC to expand video description to 10 new markets annually to achieve 100 percent nationwide coverage.

Equipment

• Requires cable/satellite set-top box on-screen text menus and guides to be audibly accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, if achievable.
• To provide access to built-in closed captioning and video description features through a mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon designated for activating the closed captioning or accessibility features.
• Requires devices designed to receive or play back video programming:
  1. to make controls of built-in functions accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have low vision, if achievable;
  2. to make controls of built-in functions accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have low vision through audio output;
  3. to provide access to built-in closed captioning and video description features through a mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon designated for activating the closed captioning or accessibility features.

Emergency Information

• Requires video programming owners, providers, and distributors to make emergency information accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision.

Watch this website for updates.  The ACB and its representative Eric Bridges have contributed valuable input on the content of these bills which finally made it to congressional votes.

History

There is a long history on the subject of audio description for television, which is typically called video description.  The short version is that the FCC mandated it to start in April 2002, but their authority to do so was challenged successfully that same year, and for the next eight years measures got introduced in Congress to reinstate that authority, failing to get passed (probably because of tacked-on unrelated provisions) until the second half of 2010.

The only good news during those years was that some networks continued to produce audio description tracks for some of their shows (many shows for PBS, a few for CBS, for example).  With the conversion to digital television, the problem of receiving the description increased immeasurably.

Originally description was offered by a feature of analog televisions called Second Audio Program, or SAP.  By activating SAP via your remote, you could receive a secondary audio channel, replacing the primary one.  The audio channel could be a Spanish language translation of the audio, or it could be a version of the primary audio that had been modified with description overlaid.

With the transition to digital TV in June of 2009, reception issues got significantly worse.  While an audio channel was designated for audio description on digital TVs years ago, without the mandate for description the TV manufacturers did little or nothing to allow access to the channel, and very few TV networks have offered a digital audio description feed.

And then there is the question of the cable and satellite networks.  They need to take a network feed and rebroadcast it, then make it available through their own set-top boxes.  Historically this has required costly additional equipment, and implementation has been spotty.

So, to put it bluntly, we are in limbo regarding actually being able to receive description on TV!  Congress has finally given the FCC the authority to mandate it from broadcasters and (we believe) will require manufacturers to make the description channel easy to access on all new TVs at some point in the future, but we're not there yet.

The key committee working on these problems is the FCC Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Larry Goldberg of WGBH Media Access, and a key workgroup is the Video Description Pass-Thru Workgroup, co-chaired by Brad Hodges of the AFB.

In the meantime, you can check some of the following topics for reference.

For audio described television outside the USA, see our International page.