Video Description Goes Mainstream

Bloggers and blog readers appreciate good writing – pithy, to-the-point, timely. You’ll discover some of the best writing anywhere when listening to the work of a good describer – those masters of language who find just the right words to fit into the spaces between dialog, describing key visual elements, and perfectly matching the tone of a movie or TV show. Sometimes only a few dozen words are used to bring you right into the scene. Here’s a sample by one of WGBH’s describers, written for Downton Abbey.

“On a hill blanketed with heather, Nield, Shrimpy and Robert make their way toward a crest overlooking a few deer grazing. Mountains loom in the distance and heavy clouds darken the sky. Each stag has tall, branching antlers. The men duck down and crawl on their bellies while Nield sets a rifle in place. He motions for Robert to crawl forward and take up the weapon. Robert does so. The three men huddle together, keeping their heads down, watching and waiting. “

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The feel of the setting and tension are captured just so, enhancing the program for all viewers who chose to select this extra audio channel.

Video description has been available since 1990, when WGBH launched “Descriptive Video Service” on PBS. For analog TV, the service was available on the secondary audio program of stereo broadcasts of many PBS programs, then spread to a few hours on CBS, Turner Classic Movies and other networks. Description next became available in movie theaters, on DVDs and then digital TV. But the big breakthrough came with the passage of the “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act” in 2010, which mandated 50 hours per quarter of described programming on the top four commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) and the top five cable networks (Disney, Nickelodeon, TBS, TNT, and USA). Now shows like The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Glee, NCIS, Law & Order, Nashville and many others are available with descriptions, along with hundreds of movies on DVD and in theaters.

The American Foundation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind both provide described TV listings and more information. There are also several sites that offer DVD and in-theater movie listings like WGBH’s Media Access Group and Captionfish. Even with this abundance of accessible entertainment now available, video description remains relatively unknown to general audiences and even to many people who are blind or who have low vision.

Screen shot of Verizon FiOS VOD Movie menu

Screen shot of Verizon FiOS VOD menu showing Movie options

That’s why the recent announcement by Verizon that their FiOS-TV video-on-demand service will now make available described movies for rent or purchase is such a great leap forward. If you have FiOS-TV, right there on your VOD menu you will find a collection of major motion pictures – with description – to choose from. The collection will be growing rapidly and you can access their latest offerings by pressing the VOD button on your FiOS-TV remote control, then selecting “Descriptive Video” from the movie option menu; you may have to scroll down.

With this tremendous new offering to ALL of its customers, Verizon is helping bring video description to a much wider world – spread the word!

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