Audio description

The purpose of audio description is to replace the important visual content with equivalent spoken information inserted as a narrative between the dialogue and other programme sounds. Audio description is essential for the full understanding and enjoyment of television programmes by people with vision impairments.

"It’s a very complicated gangster film and I saw it without audio description and I switched off half way through thinking it was a load of rubbish. Then I saw it with audio description and I thought it was one of the best gangster films I’d ever seen."

Quote from a participant in a 2008 survey of blind and partially sighted people carried out by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK.

The term ‘video description’ is often used to refer to audio description of audiovisual material, with the term ‘audio description’ being used for the describing of visual presentations in general, including theatre, sports and events.

It is not only vision impaired viewers who benefit from audio description. It can be very helpful to any viewer who is unable to give the programme their full visual attention because they are engaged in another task such as cooking. A study of sighted older users by the Audetel project showed that audio description improved comprehension and enjoyment of a police drama programme.

A good description helps convey the situations, places, events and characters in a way that brings the programme to life and allows the viewer to create a full mental ‘picture’. It must do this with clarity and unobtrusively, taking into account the style and culture of the programme and its intended audience.

These guidelines are intended for those wishing to get an idea of what good audio description should be like and the basic rules it should follow. They are intended to answer questions that broadcasters might have, such as:

      • Which programmes should be described?

      • When should descriptions be inserted?

      • What content should be described?

      • How should content be described?

    • What should it sound like?

They should be sufficient to perform a general appraisal of an audio description but they do not go down to the level of specific English linguistic mechanisms to use in different situations. This level can, however, be very important for the ultimate quality of the description. Those seeking to create professional audio description can therefore start here but should go to other sources for more detailed fine-grained advice and training.

Different resources sometimes differ in their recommendations. These differences may seem trivial at first, but some of them touch on very important issues that can make a big difference to how the description is perceived by viewers.

An example illustrating differences of opinion occurs in Joe Clark’s critique of the ITC Guidelines on Standards for Audio Description.

The ITC recommends the use of present continuous tense for ongoing activities. Joe Clark gives examples: “Mrs. Brady is unpacking the groceries” and “Justin is mixing a martini”, describing this as being like “sighted friends telling you what’s happening as you both sit in a movie theatre”. It makes the editorial voice of the describer too apparent, as if the information is being given begrudgingly in response to repeated requests from the viewer to know “What’s happening now?”. It also has the effect of continually “resetting the clock: He’s doing this. Now she’s doing this. Now he’s doing that. You’re no longer watching a flowing program that unfolds moment by moment”.

These guidelines do not cover workflow issues or procedural tips, such as how best to rehearse prior to recording. Again, these issues can have a significant effect on the quality and also on the cost of audio description, so describers are encouraged to access some of those other resources.