Multilevel audio description

  • Author: Robert Pearson
  • Date: 15 Mar 2013

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Is there more than one level to the richness of audio description?

Could it be that the first level of audio description describes the strictly essential components that are inaccessible to the non-visual user, while secondary or even tertiary levels of audio description could sequentially add to the richness of the overall audio description being provided?

This leads to the question, "How much audio description is enough to ensure that the narrative of the program is properly represented?" That determination will always be at the discretion of the describer and the context of the narrative itself, to ensure that the audio description provided is succinct and well positioned.

It may be that a user has expressed an interest in learning more about the narrative than has been portrayed by the original producer. In this instance, the first level of audio description may not be sufficient to meet the needs of that user. However, limitations on timing within the narrative may make it difficult to allow for further in-depth audio description. To satisfy the interests of that user, one solution may be to provide "extra" audio description at an entirely separate location to that of the original narrative.

Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters are continuing to develop Canadian broadcasting industry Described Video Best Practices. Eight months into a 12-month mandate, the artistic and technical guidelines of these best practices have been outlined with only minor enhancements still to be developed.

One of discussions brought forward through this committee, representing 14 organisations including blind and low vision advocacy organisations, private for-profit audio description houses, broadcasters and producers, is the idea of multilevel audio description.

Industry-adopted best practices will work towards standardising the delivery of the first level of audio-described video. Secondary and tertiary levels though, that for which room may not exist in the original audio description track would be handled at a separate location and within a different process. Some of the private for-profit audio description houses have come forward to indicate that they are planning to undertake this task of their own initiative.

Consider an episode of Star Trek or another science fiction program. First level audio description would describe what is taking place in the episode, but only the action as it is occurring and the individuals who appear throughout the narrative. Secondary and tertiary audio description would explore more of the history, individuals, extended story lines, and other backgrounds not explored in any great detail in the first level of audio description.

It may be possible to include some of this additional content in the original video, again though only at the discretion of the describer and if time allows within the context of the narrative. Otherwise, this content would be available to the user at an alternative location, likely on an accessible website. The viewer could then go there to retrieve the information if they chose to do so.

Will this system be effective? Can it be supported without a fee-based system? These questions will be examined once the industry best practices have been adopted and additional processes may be undertaken.

What are your thoughts on multilevel audio description? Let us know in the comments section below!

This is the second article in a series on audio description by Robert Pearson, Director of Accessible Digital Media at Accessible Media Inc. (AMI), based in Toronto, Canada. He is also Chair of the Canadian broadcasting industry's Described Video Best Practices (DVBP) Working Group, striving towards the establishment of industry best practices in the area of audio description, known as described video in Canada.