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FCC proposes descriptive audio to help blind enjoy TV

narration
In order for blind viewers to grasp scenes without dialogue, narrators provide descriptive audio tracks  

February 24, 2000
Web posted at: 10:49 a.m. EST (1549 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Do you recall that classic scene from the movie "North By Northwest" when Cary Grant stands vulnerable in a corn field as a crop duster dives toward him?

The power of the scene is derived from action, editing and the soundtrack. Not a word is spoken. But what if the viewer is blind? The power of the scene is lost if you can't see it.

The answer is video description, a narration laced between dialogue in a film that tells the blind viewer what is occurring on the screen. Viewers with stereo TV sets can hear the track on the Secondary Audio Program (SAP).

"Video description provides narration of key video elements of television programs and movies, so blind and visually impaired people can have an equivalent experience in watching," says Larry Goldberg of the Center For Accessible Media/WGBH.

 VIDEO
VideoCNN's Jonathan Aiken looks at a program that aims to make television more enjoyable for sightless people.
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Video description isn't new; PBS has aired more than 1,600 described programs in the past decade, and Turner Classic Movies airs a described film every Sunday night. Both are voluntary efforts.

But the aspect of it being voluntary may change. The Federal Communications Commission has proposed up to four hours of prime time and/or children's programming be described every week.

Who would benefit? According to the American Foundation for the Blind, there are 6.4 million people in the United States who are blind or visually impaired. More than half of them are over age 55, and nearly all have TV sets and VCRs, and use them more than three days a week.

There is discontent in the blind community over the federal proposal.

Critics worry a federal mandate imposed on the networks will make them reluctant to act in other areas.

"We believe that, if you're dealing with entertainment, whether it's verbalized or not should be in the province of those creating the entertainment," says Mark Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.

And some in that industry say descriptions will stifle creativity and jack up programming costs by about $4,000 for an hour of airtime.

But Margaret Pfanstiehl of Metropolitan Washington Ear Inc., a nonprofit organization providing reading and information services for blind, visually impaired and physically disabled people, says descriptions are better than nothing.

"Certainly there is no substitute for seeing," she says. "No one is ever going to say 'give blind people these descriptions and it will be just the same as if they could see the program.' "

None of the networks, including Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, would provide details of their position on the FCC proposal.

The commission will make its final decision this summer, and if approved, descriptive video could be a widespread option for viewers by mid-2001.



RELATED STORIES:
Blind hope employers can see through misconceptions
August 3, 1999
IBM software helps blind 'hear' the Web
February 11, 1999
Blind programmers face an uncertain future
November 6, 1998

RELATED SITES:
CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page
American Foundation for the Blind
Metropolitan Washington Ear

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