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Collection: Video and Captioning

purple arrow (1137 bytes)The Development of the Descriptive Video Services

B.J. Cronin; S.R. King

ABSTRACT: Television is an important means of obtaining information and sharing in the culture of this society. Because it is primarily a visual medium, blind and visually impaired people have not had full access to it. In 1990, after five years of research and development, a national service became available over the Public Broadcasting Service that makes television accessible to blind and visually impaired viewers. Developed by WGBH-TV in Boston, Descriptive Video Servicesm provides narrated descriptions of the key visual elements of television programs without interfering with their audio dialogue.

Because television is both a visual and an aural medium, blind and deaf people were, for many years, shut out of a fully satisfying experience with television. Twenty years ago, the technology of open captioning, or subtitling, was put to use for people who were deaf; 10 years later, it debuted on commercial television as the technology of closed captioning was developed. Today, closed captioning is included in all prime-time programming. Until the mid-1980s, however, no technology had been developed to provide increased television access to visually impaired persons. Before 1990, people who were blind or visually impaired, including many of the growing number of older people, continued to experience frustration or to be dependent on others for understanding television programs.

In January 1990, WGBH, the public television station in Boston, launched Descriptive Video Servicesm, (DVSŪ) a free, national broadcast service that makes television programs accessible to blind and visually impaired persons. DVSŪ provides narrated descriptions of the key visual elements of a television program, inserted into the program during pauses in the regular dialogue. It uses a third audio channel to broadcast the narrations. This third audio channel, called the Separate Audio Program (SAP) channel, is found on most new stereo television receivers and videocassette recorders (VCRs). An inexpensive stereo television decoder is also available that converts a monaural television set into stereo with SAP. DVSŪ is currently available on 36 public television stations across the country and the number is steadily increasing. It is on all episodes of the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) American Playhouse, Mystery!, Degrassi High, and The Wonderworks Family Movie.

The process of adding description to a television program involves writing the descriptions for insertion during pauses in the dialogue and then narrating the description "to picture" in a production studio. Description writing is a thoughtful, creative, and time-consuming process accomplished by writers who are trained in this special discipline. A DVSŪ writer (describer) initially views the videotape as a person might who has limited or no vision. The describer then uses specially designed computer software to map out the pauses in a program and to craft the most expressive and effective description possible. When the description is written, reviewed, and edited, a professional narrator voices the script scene by scene. About 16 to 20 hours are required to write the descriptions for a 1-hour dramatic program. It takes 2 to 3 hours for a narrator to record a 1-hour script.

History of DVSŪ

The idea of audio description for visually impaired people is not new. The visual parts of our world must somehow be explained. With television, the part of the describer has most often been played by a sighted spouse or friend. In the 1960s, some attempts were made to fill in the gaps for Star Trek programs through audio cassettes. In the 1970s, a former radio broadcaster began describing movies over a Philadelphia radio station. In 1981, Margaret Pfanstiehl began describing live theatrical performances in Washington, DC. As founder of the Washington Ear Radio Reading Service, she later developed descriptive techniques and described some American Playhouse and Nova programs that were broadcast over the radio reading service.

In 1985, with the advent of stereo television broadcasting, WGBH began exploring possible applications of this new technology. Traditionally, stereo had implied two audio channels, left and right. The new stereo technology, called Multi-channel Television Sound (MTS), included a third audio channel, the SAP. Having developed captioning for hearing-impaired viewers in 1970 and provided captioning services since that time, WGBH began looking at the possibility and value of using this new and separate channel to carry narrated descriptions of a program's key visual elements. To hear the descriptions along with the program's regular audio, the viewer would need only to have a stereo television or stereo VCR that included the SAP channel. Unlike the technology of closed captioning for hearing-impaired viewers, a criteria for the establishment of DVSŪ was to eliminate the need for a specially developed assistive device. (To receive closed captions, viewers must purchase a special Telecaption Adapter.) The stereo/SAP technology was selected because it is a regularly available consumer product.

WGBH began to research the viability and feasibility of a permanent and free national service that would make television accessible to visually impaired people. It commissioned a survey to determine if visually impaired people would use such a service and to explore other uses of the SAP channel. The survey showed that the SAP channel was virtually unused and was therefore available for DVSŪ use.

The WGBH survey uncovered several encouraging reports. First, the Electronic Industries Association, a national organization of electronic manufacturers, distributors and retailers, noted that in 1986, approximately 10 percent of all American households were equipped with stereo television receivers and that this number was expected to increase rapidly in the following years. In that same year, 43 percent of all television sets that were sold were stereo. Most of these stereo television sets and many stereo VCRs include the SAP channel, which receives the DVSŪ. Within the next 7 to 10 years, it is expected that nearly all television sets on the market will be stereo.

Second, a 1961 study (Josephson, 1968) found that blind and visually impaired people watched television with their families despite "certain frustrations." A 1977 study (Berkowitz et al., 1979) concluded that visually impaired people watched television nearly as much as sighted people.

The 1961 study reported that one third of the respondents spent four to eight and a quarter spent eight or more hours a day with radio and television. Ten percent of the sample watched television four or more hours per day and said they would prefer to watch television over other activities, such as visiting with friends, listening to the radio, and reading. The author noted that since most legally blind people do not work, they have much more leisure time than do sighted people. He also noted that "in view of [television's] appeal (at least in part) to the very sense that they have lost, it is surprising how much time blind adults do spend with it" (Josephson, 1968, p. 37). Even though the study is largely out of date, Josephson's conclusions about the role of television are probably still accurate:

If TV involves certain frustrations for blind people, it has at least one major compensating feature -watching the set is a family activity for them as for most Americans, particularly during the evening hours. In this respect, their experience with TV differs sharply from radio listening. Three quarters of our respondents said they "usually" watch TV with other members of their families; but as noted earlier, less than a third listen to the radio with others present. In short, radio listening is a solitary activity; TV engages the family as a group -even if passively. Perhaps it is just this pattern of family viewing that gives TV its appeal for blind persons despite the visual barrier (Josephson, 1968, p. 37).

Josephson also reported that blind people, as well as people in the general population, did not use television much for news and information. In the 1977 survey 16 years later, 60 percent of a sample of people with limitations in reading print said that television was their major source of information about the world. In that study, most respondents watched television 2.6 to 2.8 hours per day, compared with 3 to 4 hours for the general population. Persons who were unable to see print watched 10 percent less television than did the average. Those who had the least difficulty seeing print watched the most television.

A third study ("Lifestyles," 1990), of employed legally blind people for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), was conducted from 1985 to 1990. The preliminary findings were that persons with no useful vision watch less television than do sighted persons, but that those with some or considerable useful vision (the majority of legally blind people) watch more television than do sighted persons. This phase of the study was based only on television viewing as a "primary activity"; viewing as a secondary activity will be added later.

Unfortunately, much of the information in the 1961 and 1977 studies is out of date, considering how much the general population's use of media in the home has changed in recent years. For example, in 1990, Nielsen (1990 Report on Television) reported that American households have the television on an average of seven hours every day; presumably, blind and visually impaired people's viewing hours have also increased. It should be noted that the NIDRR study was a nonrepresentative sample because all the respondents were legally blind and employed.

The 1988 National Health Interview Survey ("Current Estimates," 1989) reported that there are more than 11 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States. Kirchner (1985, 1988) noted that in 1984, about 2 million, or 7.8 percent, of all noninstitutionalized elderly people were severely visually impaired and that additional visually impaired people were in nursing homes.

These reports led WGBH to conclude that there was a substantial potential audience for DVSŪ that was unable to gain meaningful access to television programs and that this audience was likely to grow. That visually impaired people did indeed watch television was sufficient encouragement to push development efforts forward.

As WGBH learned more about the descriptive techniques at the Washington Ear, the staff met with Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl to discuss how the theater concept could be adapted to television. As a result of that meeting, WGBH and the Pfanstiehls joined forces to conduct tests of television description, with the ultimate goal of developing DVSŪ.

The Local Test

With a grant from the Easter Seal Research Foundation in 1986, WGBH conducted the first broadcast test of DVSŪ: five episodes of the Mystery! series in the Boston area. The objectives of this local test were to develop and test the transmission technology and production methodology and to gather feedback from visually impaired individuals about their interest in and the effectiveness of the descriptions. Two writers (describers) were hired by WGBH and trained by the Pfanstiehls in the techniques of description. The programs were broadcast by WGBH over the SAP channel for five weeks. Viewers gathered each week at 9 p.m. at one of three special reception sites set up by the Perkins School for the Blind, the Boston Aid to the Blind, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Between 15 and 20 blind and low vision adults watched the broadcasts each week. The audience at the Boston Aid site consisted primarily of people over age 65, and the other sites drew younger adults. The viewers, who critiqued the programs after watching them, were overwhelmingly positive in their reactions to this new service. They stated that they did not find the descriptions obtrusive. They expressed no preference for female or male narrators, but said the the narrator's reading should not be quite as dramatic as the narrator in the test programs. A number of viewers remarked that the narrator should be a professional, not an amateur reader. With regard to the types of programs they would like described, the majority of viewers preferred dramatic programs, including mysteries. With the success of this first test, it became clear to WGBH that blind and visually impaired people wanted and would indeed use DVSŪ. It also became clear that the service could be successfully transmitted over the SAP channel.

The National Test

In 1988, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded WGBH a grant to develop a complete business and operational plan for the permanent establishment of DVSŪ. Concurrently, WGBH funded all aspects of a national test of the service and worked in conjunction with PBS, American Playhouse, and the Washington Ear to conduct the test. The Pfanstiehls were hired to oversee the descriptive writing and narration by Washington Ear volunteers. One purpose of the national test was to validate the technology to ensure that a third audio signal could be distributed within a network master control center, uplinked via satellite to participating stations and retransmitted on the stations' individual SAP channels. A second, and far more important, component of the national test was to expand contact with the visually impaired audience and to evaluate a more national sample of viewers' reactions.

Laurie Everett, a producer with WGBH for many years, was hired to oversee the national test and to develop the business and operational plan for DVSŪ. The national test consisted of an entire season, 39 episodes, of American Playhouse, with descriptions that could be accessed on the SAP channel of stereo televisions or VCRs. Ten SAP-equipped PBS stations carried the programs with DVSŪ. In addition to WGBH, the PBS stations participating in the national test were KERA, Dallas; WCBB, Lewiston, Maine; WETA, Washington, DC; WGTE, Toledo, Ohio; WMVT, Milwaukee; WNET, New York; WSRE, Pensacola; WVIZ, Cleveland; and WXXI, Rochester, New York. A great deal of national and local publicity resulted from the test, and letters expressing support for this service began pouring into DVSŪ from visually impaired people and their families across the country.

During the test year, Everett began seeking funding for the service, conducted numerous focus groups, and continued making presentations about DVSŪ to organizations of blind and visually impaired people. In summer 1988, DVSŪ was introduced to a large national gathering on visually impaired people at the American Council of the Blind convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. Everett and the Pfanstiehls made a joint presentation about description and its possible use on television. The response at this early stage was enthusiastic. Dan Glisson, who developed the software used nationally for captioning, was hired to design the sophisticated software and work stations needed to free describers' time for the creative aspects of describing, eliminating the more tedious and logistical issues (marking scenes that needed to be described or marking in and out times for pauses in program audio).

Reactions to DVSŪ

On January 20, 1988, the eve of the national test, Peter Jennings on ABC's World News Tonight, said:

It is hard enough, we thought, to keep up with all the goings on in video these days, but descriptive video? What could that possible mean? But then we learned of an experimental technique that has, we think, unusual value. Yes, for those millions of people who cannot see television there may be a way now to share in what's going on. Television need not be only a mystery and so hard to see.

A typical viewer's comment was this:

My first experience with DVSŪ was very emotional. I found myself pacing the floor in tearful disbelief. It was like somebody had opened a door into a new world, in which I was able to see with my ears what most people see with their eyes.

One screening in 1988 was to a group of residents at the North Hill Community, a senior housing environment in the Boston area. The residents viewed "The Return of Hickey," from American Playhouse. Those who came to the screening, held in an auditorium on the grounds, were all members of a low-vision group, although they did not perceive themselves as needing a special service. One woman made the following comment after watching the program:

I was watching television last night, sitting very close to the screen. I could not follow what was going on and got frustrated and turned the program off. The screen in this room must be much better than my television, because I had no problem following this entire program.

In fact, the screen in the auditorium was larger than the one in her room and had descriptions on the soundtrack. The woman denied that the descriptions had any bearing on her understanding the program, saying she did not even hear them, a testament to the inobtrusiveness of descriptive video.

Another 1988 screening was to a group of 16 to 21 year olds at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts. WGBH showed "Billy Galvin" a 90-minute movie from the American Playhouse, to the group of 21 teenagers who were attending a summer workshop. Despite difficult viewing conditions-a record-breaking hot day and a stuffy room-the teenagers were riveted to the screen; even during a break while the tape was changed, no one left the room.

"Billy Galvin" is the story of a complex relationship between a young man and his father. Many key messages in the movie were communicated nonverbally. The teenagers said that they understood more about the nature of the characters in the program than they would have had they watched the program at home without description. They thought they knew these characters better, understood their motivations better, and felt more empathy for them. They commented that when watching television at home, they struggled with their desire for independence versus the need for another family member to describe what was happening. They all felt that described television would give them new freedom and independence within their families. Asked which types of programs they most wanted to see described, they answered: popular movies. They wanted access to materials that could help them be cool and with-it.

In 1990, two other groups of adolescents and young adults at the Carroll Center for the Blind and Perkins School for the Blind, in Newton and Watertown, Massachusetts, respectively, watched and critiqued described programs from the PBS series Degrassi High. The 6 students at Perkins were aged 11 to 14, and the 20 students at the Carroll Center ranged from 14 to 20 years. All the students attend public schools during the school year.

The older students were the more articulate, especially about their feelings. They talked about their isolation, saying that they stayed home more than they would like. They watched a lot of television, but were frustrated by how much they missed. Most of the students had heard of Degrassi High, and some had watched it, but most said that they could not follow it (and other popular programs) well enough to talk about it with classmates at school the next day.

The particular episode of Degrassi High that the students watched was about an overweight boy who wanted to ask a popular girl out for a date. The boy finally did, and was turned down, but he learned that he could survive the rejection. The students focused on the subject matter immediately, something they would have been unable to do without the descriptions. Several said the program gave them courage to ask a schoolmate for a date.

These students like knowing what the characters looked like and were particularly interested in the descriptions of body language, facial expressions, hair styles, and clothing. (DVSŪ makes special effort to describe such features in episodes of Degrassi High, more than in the adult programs.) Many commented that they rarely have opportunities to learn about such details.

Although a handful of sighted people have written to say that they find the descriptions intrusive, most sighted people (often the spouses of visually impaired persons) have said that they do not. Many sighted people, in fact, have said that they like DVSŪ because it makes them more aware of details and lets them do other things while watching television.

The DVSŪ staff meets regularly with the DVS Consumer Advisory Council, a panel of eight Boston-area persons, aged 30 to 60, with various degrees of visual impairment. The council's feedback about techniques and issues has had a great influence on the evolution of WGBH's descriptive style, including, for example, the following suggestions:

Launch of a Permanent Service

The national test in 1988 and continued feedback since then have confirmed the need for DVSŪ and proved that the service could be cost effective. In 1988, WGBH began to seek funding to launch DVSŪ as a regular part of PBS programming. The goal was to have five hours of PBS programs with DVSŪ on the air within a year of funding. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided another grant, this time for the startup costs. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded WGBH a challenge grant, requiring WGBH to find 3 to 1 matching funds from the private sector.

These two grants enabled DVSŪ to go on the air on January 24, 1990, with the new season of American Playhouse. Mystery! and Degrassi High were soon added to the schedule, and Wonderworks was added later in the year. A full-time staff including two describers, a manager of operations, a manager of outreach, an administrative assistant, a unit manager, and a director of foundation development, was a hired. Several advisory groups were also established: a national advisory board, a consumer advisory council, and a network television task force.

At the same time, WGBH launched a major, yearlong congressional effort to establish DVSŪ as a funding priority within the U.S. Department of Education. The department currently provides millions of dollars annually for the production of closed-captioned programs on public television, commercial networks, cable, and home video. DVS staffers testified, along with representatives of the American Foundation for the Blind, and PBS, before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. Ultimately, Congress authorized DVSŪ and appropriated $1 million for its development. In providing the appropriation, Congress stipulated that research should be conducted to determine the ultimate viability of DVSŪ and its real value to the consumer. It is expected that the U.S. Department of Education will authorize a number of DVS-related studies during the 1991 fiscal year.

The Future of DVSŪ

The need for these studies points directly to the future for DVSŪ, a future that is not guaranteed. To date, adequate funding has not yet been found to match the NEA Challenge Grant and significant questions remain to be answered.

More research is needed to refine the technology and the methodology of description while DVSŪ continues to provide a national service. Specific areas for which research is needed are these:

In the past five year, DVSŪ has come a long way. The development process, however, continues to present new opportunities and challenges. The enthusiasm of individuals and organizations has kept it moving forward. The ultimate goal of this new national service is to make all television accessible to visually impaired people.

Berkowitz, M., et al. (1979). Characteristics, activities and needs of people with limitations in reading print. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Current estimates for the National Health Interview Survey (Series 10, No. 173). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Josephson, E. (1968). The social life of blind people (Research series no. 19). New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Kirchner, C. (1985). Data on blindness and visual impairment in the U.S. (2nd ed.). New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Lifestyles and time and money costs of being blind. (1990). Unpublished manuscript, Social Research Department, American Foundation for the Blind, with Mississippi State University Research and Training Center in Blindness and Low Vision.

1990 Report on Television. (1990). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: A.H. Nielsen.

DVSŪ is a Registered Service Mark of the WGBH Educational Foundation. Descriptive Video Servicesm is a Service Mark of the WGBH Educational Foundation.

Barry J. Cronin, Ph.D., executive director, market development and technology;
Sharon Robertson King, MA, outreach director, Descriptive Video ServiceŪ, WGBH Educational Foundation, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, MA 02134.

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