President's Message: Description for TV: Progress and Future Horizons

by Kim Charlson

One of the areas in which I have focused a considerable portion of my advocacy efforts over the years is on audio description. Initially, my passion for description was focused at the local level with description for live theater. I co-authored a book entitled "Making Theater Accessible: A Guide to Audio Description in the Performing Arts," which is a guide for advocates and a step-by-step resource for theater staff to follow when implementing a program of audio description. It includes how to get started, a planning calendar, marketing and outreach ideas, information on the equipment required, and finding trained describers. Copies of the book are still available in regular print to share with theater staff or potential funders, as well as in electronic, large print or braille formats. There is no cost for the publication. You may request it from me directly by e-mailing or by calling (617) 501-5853.
I also had the opportunity to work with WGBH, since I live in the Boston area, on early research and consumer testing of audio description for public television. It was this experience that really captured my excitement about how important description is for accessing and understanding television programming for adults and children who are visually impaired. Public television has always held my highest regard for their early and ongoing commitment to description.  I was so thrilled when we started to have described television content on network television, and devastated when the court overturned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate to provide description for television in 2002.
ACB then turned its advocacy efforts to Congress to get legislative language to support and enable the FCC to once again require audio description on television. That effort, with our many partners, resulted in the 21st Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which was signed into law by President Obama on Oct. 8, 2010. I was truly honored to be at the White House on that momentous date to witness the signing of this important legislation.
Since that time, ACB has been very active in submitting comments on various issues surrounding description and accessing it with equipment. Comments have been submitted to the FCC, the Department of Justice, and the Access Board on many aspects of audio description and its use.
Most recently, two activities took place that are moving audio description forward. On July 24th, I was honored to partner with Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for the Blind, in co-hosting a teleconference call on the topic of audio description for television. Over 115 callers participated, and for two hours we discussed how to access audio description on television, what markets have description, what networks are required to provide programming with description, and what shows are described on TV.
As of July 1, 2012, America's top national broadcast and cable networks are each required by law to provide at least 50 hours per calendar quarter, approximately four hours per week, of prime time or children's television programming that is described for people with vision loss. Currently, the following networks must provide described programs: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, USA, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, TNT, and TBS.
Officially, the FCC's mandate to pass through description only applies to the top 25 markets, but implementation of this is voluntary by other network affiliates outside of these market areas. I would strongly recommend that you check in with your local affiliates and advocate for them to pass through the description signal. The top 25 markets are: 1) New York City, 2) Los Angeles, 3) Chicago, 4) Philadelphia, 5) Dallas-Fort Worth, 6) San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, 7) Boston-Manchester, N.H., 8) Atlanta, 9) Washington, D.C., 10) Houston, 11) Detroit, 12) Phoenix-Prescott, 13) Seattle-Tacoma, 14) Tampa-St. Petersburg, 15) Minneapolis-St. Paul, 16) Miami-Fort Lauderdale, 17) Denver, 18) Cleveland-Akron-Canton, 19) Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, 20) Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, 21) St. Louis, 22) Portland, Ore., 23) Charlotte, N.C., 24) Pittsburgh, 25) Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville.     
One theme that came through loud and clear during the call was that people who are blind are experiencing many challenges to getting the audio description on their TVs. There are many factors that make this an issue, from the television itself to assistance accessing the on-screen menus to set the description to be on, to the local network affiliate, to the cable provider. There are currently many places in the pipeline where the process can breakdown. This means that anyone trying to get description on television must be persistent and talk to several people along the way. Each person's case has its own unique factors, from location to cable provider, to the type of television set being used.
ACB's Audio Description Project (ADP) is trying to help people experiencing difficulty getting description to work for television programs. Please check out the vast amount of information on this topic on the ADP web site, You will also find information there about which programs are described and what commercial DVDs are being released with a description track. You can also learn practical tips on how to turn described TV on and who to talk to when you have trouble getting description to work.
Another useful resource for finding out what is on television with description has been developed by the American Foundation for the Blind. It can be found at Select "Described TV Listings," and enter your zip code, cable provider and a date and time, and you will get a listing of programs with description.
There are so many components to the issue of access with audio description for television, including the hardware used. While passage of the CVAA has already resulted in many more hours of audio described content, we still need to see television sets and other electronic devices that are used for displaying video with audio to be accessible. This is likely to take place within the next two to three years as the result of the FCC's regulations currently under review. ACB's information access committee, along with our colleagues at the American Foundation for the Blind, has been expertly voicing our concerns on these issues for many months now. We expect final word on these regulations to be out in the fall.
I am confident that there is much happening in the area of audio description. I urge anyone experiencing difficulty to let ACB know their issues, and we will do our best to work with you to get things resolved. Please do stay tuned for updates. It is important that you let ACB know if you are experiencing issues getting description to work for you. ACB needs to share your accounts with the FCC to let them know the real-world problems people who are blind are having accessing the wonderful audio-described content on television now and the increasing availability coming in the future. Right now, our progress is literally being made one television set at a time; but with more advocacy by ACB and our partners, we will see more people getting audio description more easily in the future.