While audio description isn't as ubiquitous as captions, it's finally getting its due. For example, YouTube has announced it's testing the addition of multiple audio tracks to videos. It hopes to roll this out in the coming quarters. 

NBC provided audio description at the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics for all competitions aired during primetime hours as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Additionally, NBC provided live audio description (AD) at the Paralympics for all broadcast programming including those outside of primetime hours. 

What Is Audio Description?

At an audio description webinar with Tom Wlodkowski of Comcast, Michele Spitz of Woman of Her Word, Justin Smith of IFC Films/AMC Networks, Cliff Hahn, and Diamond's Joe Devon, the group talked about what it is and how it works. Audio description describes the key visual elements of a program or movie by inserting narrated description into the natural pauses of the program dialogue. It's also called "descriptive narration" and "video description." 

For your video to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 for audio descriptions at Level A, the minimum level, you will need to provide an audio or text alternative for audio description of the prerecorded video content. (See WCAG Success Criterion (SC) 1.2.3.) If you're targeting Level AA, which is considered the standard Level, then you must provide an audio description for all prerecorded video content. (See WCAG SC 1.2.5.

Some videos require a detailed description that can't be done during pauses. In this scenario, a video may contain extended audio description. The video would pause while the narrator gives the complete audio description. This is common in the educational space.

Extended AD achieves Level AAA of WCAG. (This is WCAG SC 1.2.7.) In this scenario, pauses in the main audio are not long enough to provide enough time for AD to convey the sense of the video. So, the video will be paused to give time to provide a complete audio description.

A lot of times an opening scene will contain music and lots of visual elements without any dialogue. Audio description brings a program to life for those not seeing the visuals. Some streaming platforms offer audio description including Netflix, Apple TV+, Paramount+ Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max. American Council of the Blind (ACB) lists services that offer some AD programming.

ACB also has an Audio Description Project page. It explains how to access audio description on TV and lists shows that contain audio description. Audio descriptions go beyond entertainment as they're appearing in airline videos, educational content, and more. Spitz, a professional voiceover artist, has a website with audio description examples from various genres. 

There has been a rise in demand for audio description titles. How can people find out about audio description? It remains a challenge as it's not omnipresent as closed captioning. The key to finding audio description is to follow trusted websites and resources like the ACB's AD project page previously mentioned.

Cable and network providers have a badge for audio description. The talking guide on a TV or device can identify the badge and announce the program has audio description.

It may be difficult for some to navigate on their TVs if they don't have the talking guide and they have to navigate an on-screen menu to turn it on.

What Is the Process for Adding Add Audio Description to Videos?

What is the process to add audio description to video? Spitz sits down with clients to educate them on the process including distribution. The AD team would obtain the transcript and assign it to an experienced writer who creates an AD transcript. The writer needs to introduce more than the basics of what's going on. It's important to get a sense of the ethos of the film. 

After creating the AD, the team will cross-reference it with the time-stamped media. They'll put it through quality control. Once done, it goes back to the client for reviewing and making amendments. They also work with casting to determine what the authentic casting would be based on the content of the project. Is it mostly male characters? Female characters? What languages are spoken?

If the film or video contains narrators or voices, it's important to ensure the person doing the voiceover for the audio description doesn't sound like them. It confuses the listener. Casting the person doing the voiceover is as important as the writing to ensure they complement each other.

Upon completing the script with the AD, the creative team goes to the studio to record the audio description. Next, they'll edit and mix it for various platforms: streaming, theaters, and so on. The film may be mixed to tweak sounds to ensure there's balance.

Audio Description Challenges

Some distributors like IFC Entertainment will put the AD through their own internal quality control (QC) process and check it for different possible issues. The main QC is done on the production side such as the partner lab. The lab breaks up the files into specific versions and listens for potential content issues, inaccuracy, or something that's not clear. They'll open dialog with production to ask what the thinking was behind the AD. They also check for subtitles and accuracy.

Another factor that may come to play is foreign language AD. It adds an element of dubbing the feature to cover the subtitles. The distributor needs to make sure the subtitles are covered accurately and then check the files for tech audio issues. Through all this, they have to be mindful of deadlines.

Broadcast networks have the added challenge of legacy holdovers or older technology. Streaming doesn't have this issue. Additionally, when people create movies and remix them for television, they don't always re-mix them. This can lead to accessibility problems for people watching at home.

Studios like IFC are the root of the tree. Distributors are the branches that have to send the video to video on demand, networks, cruise ships, airlines, DVDs, and international partners. It's not one file format for all of these branches. They have their own requirements. Not only do they need to verify AD works but also all accessibility including captions and subtitles.

What's Next for Audio Description

Clearly, audio description is a complex process. The next step is for the production industry, content producers, and distributers to come together to find a way for audio descriptions travel as seamlessly with films as closed captions do.

"It would be ideal if one day an app on a phone and people would have the ability to have the phone with the app," says Tom Wlodkowski. "Maybe one day remove headsets from movie theaters. People can use their devices for captions and AD. Bring your own device (BYOD) is going to be a popular way."