How Do You Watch Peak TV If You’re Blind?
Inside the burgeoning world of audio description, a game-changer in accessible TV
by Kelsey McKinney
Reprinted from “Vanity Fair,” June 2017.
The fifth season of “House of Cards” begins with a pair of dress shoes padding toward a doorway. They belong to President Frank Underwood, on his way to interrupt a congressional hearing. Most viewers will experience it as a quiet moment — but in this version of the episode, there’s a voice speaking, and it’s not Kevin Spacey’s fourth-wall-breaking narration. “Underwood marches over a gleaming floor in a stately corridor,” it tells us. “Frank puts on a lapel pin.” And just before the opening credits begin — after Frank has arrived on the Senate floor, where he demands those gathered to declare war — the voice interjects once more: it needs us to know that Frank has made eye contact with the viewer, because the assumption is that we won’t be able to see it ourselves.
A record-high 455 scripted television shows aired in 2016, and a 2016 Nielsen report found that Americans are watching an average of five hours of television every single day. But the nation’s 24 million visually impaired citizens can’t easily take part in the defining cultural medium of our age — which is where that second narrator comes in. He’s a voice actor, hired to read a script that fills in the details not conveyed by House of Cards’ dialogue. This is the process of audio description; like its cousin, closed captioning, it can be turned on using the menu of your cable box or streaming device, at least sometimes. (More on that later.)
“It usually takes about a day to write a one-hour show,” says Diane Johnson, president & CEO of an audio description company called Descriptive Video Works. “We are very careful not to speak over dialogue. If there’s too much description, it’s overwhelming. If there’s not enough, our viewers will miss things.” Describing an inherently visual medium requires not only precision, but grace. “I stress as few words as possible,” says Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates. “Describers have to take the time to pick the right words to describe a scene, and to try to do so objectively without attributing your own interpretation to it.” And of course, as Shawn Marsolais, the executive director of the nonprofit Blind Beginnings, says, “If the voice is annoying in any way, it will ruin the show.”
Everything from faint smirks to scene shifts is fair game for audio description. On House of Cards, for example, Marsolais — who is blind — appreciates hearing how Frank is physically reacting to his latest roadblock: “I need to know the facial expression, because it’s all about how manipulative and horrible he is. If they don’t describe that, you’re just going to miss his whole personality.” Writers who work for these companies watch an episode dozens of times to get their descriptions perfectly succinct and vivid, since the narration will be playing over background noise and scoring. Word choice matters more than anything — Underwood moves across a “gleaming floor” rather than a shiny one, for example, and he also “marches” rather than walking.
Without audio description, a television series can be incredibly inaccessible for visually impaired people — especially the moody, dramatic tentpoles of prestige TV, which often feature long, dialogue-free stretches. “When I lived alone, I would have to call someone I knew during a commercial break just to find out what was going on,” says Marsolais. “Did they kiss or not? What happened? It was really frustrating.” Yet unlike closed captioning, which has been widely available since 1980, TV only recently embraced this beneficial art form; Netflix, for example, has been streaming media since 2007, but just added audio description for its original programming in April 2015. “It is much easier to participate in most culture as a deaf person than as a blind person,” says Johnson. According to her, that’s partially because “until very recently, the deaf community has been much better at advocating for themselves, demanding the resources to consume what they can see they’re missing.”
But not being able to consume the same culture as everyone else isn’t just an inconvenience — it keeps visually impaired people separate from their neighbors. “My peers were watching these movies in the theater, and I had to order the movie from the library and watch it a year later,” Marsolais says. “I was so far behind, and it was so frustrating.” In the three decades since Marsolais was a blind child, the world of audio description has expanded vastly, but it’s still not enough. Last year’s best-picture film, “Moonlight,” for example, still doesn’t have an audio description track; neither does the programming on Amazon, Hulu, Showtime, Sling, and HBO. “The explosion in programming means there’s a lot of that out there,” Snyder says. “You shouldn’t have to wait until a specific date to get the audio-described service. A blind person should be able to experience a show like everyone else.”
Because, of course, in one very important way, we’re all the same. “I’ve heard people say people who are blind don’t watch TV,” Johnson says. “But that’s just not true. Of course they watch TV. Everyone watches TV.”