Audio descriptions open up a new world for those that can’t see the on-screen action. But some of TV’s biggest shows still remain off-limits.
A while back, Thomas Bryan was travelling. Stuck in a motel on his own for the night, he decided to watch some telly. “There was a program called Person of Interest, a futuristic, spycam-type show,” he says. Airing on TVNZ 1, and starring Lost’s Michael Emerson and Amy Acker, it tells the story of police using an all-seeing AI machine to help them predict crime.
After a while, Bryan realised the show wasn’t for him. “This is rubbish,” he thought, and turned it off. When he got home, his wife told him she’d recorded a new TV show for him. It was the same episode of Person of Interest – only this time, Bryan could watch it properly. He’s visually impaired, and has been for most of his life. He can make out shadows, bright lights and doorways, and that’s about it.
The version of Person Interest he watched at home was very different to the one he saw in the motel. “It was … a totally different program,” he says. “It’s just so good.” That’s because of audio descriptions (AD). The format, available on select TV shows and streaming services, offers an extra layer of audio beyond a show’s audible action and dialogue.
An extra voiceover, narrated in the gaps between dialogue, informs the visually impaired of things they might otherwise be missing. “They tell you things of interest or [describe] the expressions on people’s faces,” says Bryan. Sometimes, it might help visualise the background, or describe handcuffs being placed on a criminal. “It’s another dimension that fills in all the gaps.”
It wasn’t available to him in the hotel. But at home, AD allowed Bryan to understand what was really happening in the FBI thriller he was watching, giving him an immersive experience similar to those with sight. “If there’s no words and someone’s creeping up the stairs, or they’ve got a knife in their hand, they’re painting that picture for you.”
He loves a good English detective story, a classic whodunnit, and shows like Downton Abbey. But there are plenty of shows Bryan can’t watch. He hasn’t seen HBO’s prestige TV hits like Succession, The Last of Us or Barry. News shows can be an issue, as can sport. He got in touch after reading The Spinoff’s ranking of the top 20 streaming services to point out Neon – our number one – was essentially useless to him as it has no AD options. Other streaming services are sporadic with AD. Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video and Apple TV+ have AD available for some shows. But the quality varies. When The Spinoff tried watching the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, a robotic voice providing bland descriptions quickly got annoying.
Bryan says the best option for the 180,000 visually impaired New Zealanders is to stick to the strict timetables offered by linear, broadcast TV channels TVNZ 1, TVNZ 2, Three and Prime, which offer AD for most shows. (The accompanying streaming services, TVNZ+ and ThreeNow, do not.) He’d love to be able to watch more, and keep up with all those watercooler TV moments. But right now, without AD, it’s just not possible. “It’s very hit and miss,” he says.
Doors are closed, curtains are pulled, voices are hushed. Up eight floors in a grey office block off Symonds Street in Auckland, a lot of TV is being watched. Clare Wilson sits in front of a pivotal Shortland Street scene and promises me to secrecy – she’s busy viewing an episode of the local soap that’s not due to appear on our screens until next week.
This is her job. She watches each episode, writes an AD script, then records it to fill in the gaps for viewers who can’t see those things take place for themselves. Each episode takes her around 90 minutes or so – more if there’s lots of action, or a Christmas cliffhanger. “Every AD-er will not AD the same way,” she says. “We are not robots. We don’t have a standard saying for every situation because media is so diverse.”
The importance of her role isn’t lost on her. About 7% off New Zealand TV viewers rely on AD, including the visually impaired, and those with neurological or attention deficit problems. Wilson carries a torn, faded note with her at all times from a fan who wrote in to thank her for her work on The Luminaries. That was a knotty show that took her the best part of five weeks to provide AD for. “It was one of those moments … ‘Ah, I did that’,” she says. “And that person has been able to enjoy that show.”
Nearby, inside another soundproofed room, Paul Harrop is working his way through an episode of Survivor Australia. A wave crashes over a beach in Samoa, but with no dialogue, he’s decided to get out his poetry pen and go for it. “A misty veil of grey cloud drapes over the island carpeted in tall palm trees,” he says in a calm, soothing tone. “Waves violently crash against a bank of dark rocks sending spouts of white water fountaining into the air.”
A show like Survivor makes his job easy, he says. There’s plenty of dialogue and the story’s edited to make it obvious who’s backstabbing who – he just has to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, it’s trickier. He recently provided AD for the film Blade Runner 2049 and found the lack of dialogue tough work. It’s not his job to explain the film’s visual metaphors, just to help put the director’s vision in front of those who can’t see it. “I don’t want to tell them how to feel. I don’t want to tell them how to think,” he says. “I [only] want to tell them anything that a sighted viewer can see.”
After 10 years, Paul’s been providing AD at Able longer than anyone. Since spinning out of TVNZ to become its own thing in 2011, the not-for-profit has just kept growing. With NZ On Air funding, it provides captions and subtitles for the hearing impaired, and has seven full-time AD staff doing descriptive work for more than 80 hours of content each week.
But with a lack of local streamers offering AD, Able’s AD founder Virginia Philp says there’s potential to be doing plenty more. “We just go where the broadcasters go,” she says. “We follow their schedules and try to be consistent.” Yes, she admits it’s frustrating their work isn’t available across more platforms, but all their AD work is saved in a library and hopes it will be available to everyone soon. “There will come a time when we feel like our archive, our inventory, can be put to good use.”
Thomas Bryan, a member of Able’s board, can’t wait for that moment. He believes he, and everyone else that uses AD, will take as much content as they can get their hands on. (Neon didn’t respond to request for comment; A spokesperson for TVNZ said: “Our current video player does not have the ability to host audio-descriptions. We know this is disappointing for blind and low vision audience members, but we do not think we will be in this position forever.) Yes, things have come a long way since its early days when only Coronation Street came with AD. “People, even those in the blind community, just don’t know about audio description,” he says. “Audio description paints such a wonderful, colourful picture of what it is that’s happening.”