Sony is calling on manufacturers and broadcasters from television industry to join its campaign to provide products and services for blind and partially sighted people.
“We are all used to seeing and using subtitles on TV, but what many people don’t know is that the technology exists to make a similarly useful service available for the 30 million or so visually impaired people we have in Europe,” said Andreas Ditter, Vice President TV Operations Europe. “The entire Sony BRAVIA television range now provides access to Audio Description (AD) as standard which, in combination with a commitment to raise awareness of AD, aims to increase the number of programmes, broadcasters and television manufacturers that offer the service.”
While the majority of consumers have embraced and benefited from the increase in services, channels and programmes today’s digital broadcasters provide, many visually impaired people are unable to take advantage of these benefits – and yet the technology exists for them to enjoy TV programming as much as those that can see.
Audio Description (AD) is an additional narrative soundtrack for blind or partially sighted people. During gaps in programme dialogue, an additional voice explains visual plot points, enabling visually impaired people to follow the storyline more fully.
Audio description is available on a variety of television programmes throughout Europe but, until now, has only been accessible through the purchase of a separate set-top box or satellite receiver. Now, all Sony BRAVIA televisions will include Integrated Digital Television (IDTV) as standard, and provide access to AD without the need for an additional decoder. Most television manufacturers now have products that offer IDTV, a built-in digital tuner that does away with need for a separate set-top box for converting digital channels. However, few have the ability to offer AD access. BRAVIA TVs offer a powerful audiovisual processor, capable of decoding multiple audio channels and thereby providing access to AD in addition to other aesthetic benefits.
Although BRAVIA televisions will now provide Audio Description access as standard, there are still a number of challenges facing AD before the 30 million blind or visually impaired ‘viewers’ in Europe can claim to enjoy the same kind of service that subtitles provide for the hard of hearing: lack of legislation requiring the provision of AD and low awareness of AD.
To date, the UK is the only country in Europe which makes the provision of Audio Description a legal requirement for key broadcasters. In 2005, the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom stipulated that 76 channels must carry AD. Current regulations state that all BBC channels, for example, must audio describe at least 8% of their programmes per week.
While broadcasters in other countries, such as France and Germany, do offer some level of AD supported programming, most campaigners agree that in order for it to become truly valuable for blind and partially sighted people, European broadcasters need to be legally obliged to offer it as a service.
With the limited availability of programmes offering AD throughout Europe, it is hardly surprising that awareness and take up of the service is low. In 2006 a UK survey found that, although only 22% of visually impaired respondents who had heard of AD claimed to use it on ‘some programmes’ when it is available, nearly two thirds (63%) of those with at least moderate visual impairment who had not previously heard of it claimed they would be interested in using it.
One argument put forward by both broadcasters and legislators, is that there is a limited need for channels to feature AD due to a lack of products that are available with the technology required to play it. Sony BRAVIA now changes this, and Sony is now also undertaking a Europe-wide PR campaign to raise awareness of the issues amongst consumers, media, legislators and manufacturers, working with organizations for the visually impaired throughout Europe, such as Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB).