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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

How Do I Receive Audio (Video) Description?  (Updated Feb '20)

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

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 years ago, and eventually everyone else followed.  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.

Which TV to Buy? (not updated recently...)

While we, the ADP or ACB, have not researched TVs, we will be happy to relate positive user experiences with TV sets currently on the market.  The recommendation needs to come from one or more visually impaired persons who find it easy to access both the accessible user interface and the SAP Feature.  Some of these are smaller TVs, because the user doesn't need the visual benefits of a large screen; however, typically a TV with a certain set of features will come in multiple sizes.

Hisense is another TV manufacturer, and they have a web page on Hisense TV Accessibility Features and a number to call for information (888-935-8880).

Provider-Specific Information (Updated Aug '20)

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, plus Recast

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 Prime 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 Blu-ray players, including certain TVs and Blu-ray players from Hisense, LG, Samsung, and Sony."  Note that Amazon also offers the Fire TV Recast box, a DVR for over-the-air transmissions which can be placed anywhere in the house and accessed on any TV via a Fire Stick or remotely.  See our article on Cord-Cutting Options Supporting Audio Description which discusses the Recast unit and Fire Sticks in detail.

Accessibility Updates for Fire TV and Amazon Prime Video Customers

AT&T DirecTV
Updated
Aug '20

DirecTV is owned by AT&T.  The information we listed here previously was from 2016, so we have removed it as there are surely updates!  If you are a customer and can supply us with details, please do so.  However, we have new information on enabling description and accessing the Talking Guide as posted to the right.  To quickly turn on AD, press the Info key on the remote and then up-arrow.  Need help?  Call 800-531-5000.

Please note:  AT&T appears to be abandonning the marketing of DirecTV except in very rural areas.  The replacement product is a streaming service called AT&T TV, as described on our Streaming Services page.

Enabling Video Description (2020)

Accessing the Talking Guide (2020)

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

Charter

See Spectrum below.

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Comcast

From an April 2020 Facebook post by Jeff Heck:  "If you have the X1 platform, Comcast/Xfinity has put all of their AD programming into one convenient area.  If you have an X1 remote, you can hit the audio button and say 'described shows' ... and it takes you to all their described programs.  It tells you what's currently airing that is described, movies and specials on demand, and series on demand [plus] series and movies on Netflix."  If you are having problems, check the Support Center link or call their Customer Service Center for People With Disabilities at 855-270-0379 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 from Sep '19:  Demo of the Xfinity X1 Set Top Box with Voice Guidance.

NOTE:  As of April15, 2020, if you have a Comcast X1 platform unit, including the Flex box, you have free access to the new NBCUniversal Peacock app.  As of the date of this entry, we do now know if or how well it supports audio description.

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.

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 is the brand name used by Charter Communications, which in 2016 combined Bright House, Charter, Time Warner Cable, and several smaller companies.  The current recommended cable box from Spectrum is called a World Box, which, of course, supports an audio guide and the SAP channel for audio description.  It comes in several models.  The 110 is the base model with no DVR, while models starting with 2 (like 210) include a DVR.  To evaluate your current options, call Spectrum at 844-762-1301.

Please visit Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) Instructions to see instructions for your cable box.  Please send your experience to the Webmaster.

Spectrum Guide Narration Information

TiVo

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.

User Robert C wrote in April 2017:  "I have been extremely happy with my TiVo Romeo series DVR for 3+ years by being able to access everything I needed through the TiVo app. Then, in December, they added a screen reader to the box itself and I like it even more! They also added two very useful remote control shortcut buttons. By holding the 'A' button someone can toggle the screen reader on and off and with the 'C' button you can access alternate audio when available."

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 compatible with text-to-speech, you can swap it out for no charge, including installation.  If you rent a movie on demand and the movie has a description track, the FIOS service should transmit the description for you.  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?  (Updated Apr '20)

As of July 1, 2018, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Discovery, HGTV, History, TBS, and USA are each required to provide 87.5 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming per calendar quarter.  (USA has an exemption from new programming but in return offers more total described programming than any other network.)  PBS and TCM have long voluntarily provided description (several other stations like The CW provide some now), and we believe Nickelodeon (replaced by History in 2015) will continue.  Disney, however, did not.

History

On January 12, 2018, the FCC's Media Bureau released a Public Notice announcing the top ten nonbroadcast networks according to the Nielsen ratings:  Fox News, ESPN, USA, MSNBC, HGTV, TBS, Discovery, History, Hallmark, and TNT.  The Commission would determine from this list, depending on exemption requests filed by program networks that believe they should be excluded from this list, which top five nonbroadcast networks will be included under the video description requirements for the three year interval beginning July 1, 2018.  In May 2018 the FCC has granted requests from ESPN, MSNBC, and Fox News to be excluded from the list of networks that must provide video description because they do not air at least 50 hours of prime time programming that is not live or near live per calendar quarter.  The FCC then updated the list of the top five nonbroadcast networks that will be subject to the FCC's video description requirements effective July 1, 2018, to be USA, HGTV [New], TBS, Discovery [New], and History, thus dropping Disney and TNT, both of which will hopefully continue providing at least some description.  Here is the May 2018 FCC Order and Public Notice Read the original January 2018 Public Notice

Also as of July 1, 2018, the time requirement for description increased from 50 hours per quarter to 87.5 hours per quarter (about an hour per day) and is now subject to increased restrictions on counting reruns.  The NCTA (The Internet & Television Association) has petitioned the FCC for relief concerning repeat counts for cable networks.

Local Stations:  Officially, as of July 1, 2015, the FCC's mandate applies to the top 60 markets.  (See also the current Nielson DMA Rankings.)  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 as listed above 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 TBS), 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 via the following URL:  https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us/requests/new?ticket_form_id=36040!

Here's another approach offered on our list server by Timothy in Dec '14 and updated slightly in April 2020:

... 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.

AS A LAST RESORT, you can visit:  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? (Updated Feb '20)

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. 

Here are our results reported in AVERAGE HOURS PER WEEK, broadcast networks first, followed by nonbroadcast (cable) networks.  The PBS numbers come from one PBS station and may not reflect all stations.  Disney (no longer mandated) no longer provides description.  Congratulations to the USA Network for maintaining its #1 rank by a significant margin for all measured periods!  Note, however, that the FCC limits how reruns are counted, and USA Network is heavily reruns (which also affects HGTV, History, TBS, and TNT rankings).  Their ranking below is misleading according to the FCC rules, as we are simply counting show occurrences.  Starting July 2018, new requirements further limit reruns and increase the minimum number of hours required by 75%.  Note, however, that USA Network gained an exception to the rerun rules and offered its superior number of total described offerings in exchange.

Average Hours/Week Jan '20 Spring 2019 Fall 2018 Spring 2018 Fall 2017 Spring 2017 Fall 2016 Spring 2016 Fall 2015
Network Type Reqd Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank Hours Rank
ABC B Yes 13.3 10 11.8 9 15.3 8 8.0 8 9.3 7 8.3 8 7.3 7 8.8 6 6.3 7
CBS B Yes 10.8 12 9.5 12 9.6 10 9.9 7 10.3 5 8.4 7 8.9 6 8.1 8 6.4 6
FOX B Yes 10.3 13 11.4 10 10.4 9 13.0 5 11.4 4 14.9 5 11.1 5 11.5 5 8.9 5
NBC B Yes 11.8 11 11.0 11 6.3 11 11.0 6 9.4 6 8.5 6 7.3 7 8.5 7 5.5 8
PBS B No 50.0 5 54.9 6 42.8 5                        
                                         
Discovery NB Yes nd   nd   28.0 7                        
Disney NB No na   na   na   4.9 9 4.1 8 5.3 9 4.3 9 4.9 9 4.6 9
HGTV NB Yes 23.9 7 19.9 8                            
History NB Yes 60.3 4 61.5 5 51.6 4 37.8 4 29.9 3 29.9 20.4 4 18 4 10.9 4
Oxygen NB No 22.3 8                                
SyFy NB No 37.8 6 22.9 7                            
TBS NB Yes 121.4 2 129.5 2 129.2 2 57.3 3 50.4 2 49.1 2 45.1 3 41.6 3 49.8 3
TCM NB No 16.5 9 74.8 3 36.4 6                        
TNT NB Yes 78.9 3 71.8 4 61.5 3 80.7 2 n/a n/a 44.5 3 76.4 2 65.8 2 75.6 2
USA NB Yes 131.9 1 138.1 1 132.8 1 122.6 1 125.8 1 99 1 115.9 1 117 1 109.5 1

KEYType (B=Broadcast; NB=NonBroadcast); Reqd (Yes=mandated by FCC); na (not applicable anymore); nd (no data available)

NOTE:  Prior to July 2018 the requirement was 3.8 hours/week, which increased to 6.7 hours/week with limited rerun counting by July 2018.

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.

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.

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.  [Applicable link expired]

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.