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The Little Picture: Nets just aren’t getting the picture on SAP

Sep 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

My fellow TV critics and the networks have differing opinions on the meaning of the phrase “new fall shows.” If you’ve been reading around, you know that we scribes are unhappy with the all-too-familiar setups and story lines of the allegedly fresh network programming unveiling this month and next.
Well, I’ve got just the cure for your same old same old. It’s called the SAP channel.
No, I’m not referring to a 24-hour cable network aimed at the extremely gullible. I’m talking about the audio channel where, this fall, some of TV’s best-known shows are being described for the blind and visually impaired.
It’s no joke. In fact, it’s a marvelous development that everyone should know about, even those whose eyes are so sharp they can make out Tiffani Thiessen’s mole on “Fastlane” from the other side of the room.
Here’s all you do. Turn on the SAP (secondary audio program) channel on your TV’s on-screen menu. If you have an older-model TV set, try your VCR’s on-screen menu instead. Then tune to one of the described shows (see box, Page 21), watch and listen.
What you’ll hear is an ingenious sub-narrative, a running account of the visual action grafted onto the existing audio track. In the hands of experts-such as public broadcaster WGBH-TV in Boston, which describes more TV programs than anyone-audio description is so unobtrusive that after a while, you hardly even know it’s there.
If you’re a “Simpsons” fan, you may recall the following scene from the “Half Decent Proposal” episode that aired last winter. Containing no dialogue, it would mystify a sight-impaired user if not for this description spoken by the WGBH narrator: “Now our view moves out of Barney’s window and down the street to the Simpsons. As Homer’s snoring shakes the house, Marge lies wide awake next to him. On the nightstand an alarm clock and a lamp wobble! … She pinches Homer’s nose and his lips vibrate. She holds his mouth shut. His eyelids vibrate. She gives up and plops onto her back.
“Morning, in the kitchen. She pours milk into a potted plant and serves it to Bart. Lisa pokes her fork into magazines covered in syrup.”
A thing of beauty, ain’t it?
Remarkably, the networks under protest are providing this service to the nation’s 6 million or so visually impaired viewers. If you recall the battle that the TV industry waged over mandatory closed captioning a decade ago, you’ll not be surprised to learn that its lobbyists are now defending the networks’ right to air audio descriptions voluntarily-which is a nice way of saying never.
The matter will be decided by the end of this year by the fearsome D.C. Court of Appeals, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell’s secret ally in his crusade to strike all remaining public-interest obligations from the FCC’s books. But this time, the FCC may be doomed to successfully defend its own rulemaking.
According to those who attended the court’s Sept. 6 hearing on the matter, the case against mandated TV description boiled down to whether the FCC was right to exercise “ancillary jurisdiction”-rulemaking it was not explicitly ordered to make by Congress.
In 2000, then-Commissioner Powell dissented from the FCC order on description on exactly this point. “Congress squarely considered and rejected the very permissive adoption of rules the Commission now embarks upon,” Powell wrote.
“Rejected”? “Squarely”? Actually, no, but neither did Congress tell the FCC to go ahead with its rulemaking. And as Alan Dinsmore of the American Foundation for the Blind pointed out, “If you’re a strict constructionist”-which Powell is-“you could argue, `It’s not there, so they forbade us.”’
Interestingly, the industry’s other big argument-that description illegally alters TV programming-was shot down by the one judge on the court who had actually bothered to find the SAP channel on her TV. Judge Karen Henderson deftly knocked down the industry’s claim by noting that descriptions (as in the example above) don’t alter content, they merely translate existing visual content to the verbal.
The court should rule on the FCC’s description order by year-end. But the matter doesn’t end with television. Movie theater chains are starting to equip selected screens with audio description equipment (and closed captioning). This means more first-run movies are being described than ever, which means the library of videos and DVDs with optional audio descriptions is growing too.
And with that, new problems with accessibility. Such as, how the hell do you turn on the audio descriptions for a DVD if you can’t see the on-screen menus? WGBH showed me one answer: a DVD set of its documentary “The Lincolns,” which has an “audio navigation” feature. After I pressed “1” and the “select” key on my DVD remote, eyes shut, a pleasant female voice helped me find my way. (“Use the up and down arrows to scroll through the 18 chapters.”)
In short, audio description of visual content is something that deserves more attention, not less, as the variety of content delivery systems grows. Why it has failed to become a major issue in the digital transition is easy to figure out: According to a survey conducted in 1997 by the American Foundation for the Blind, visually impaired viewers are in the group that watches the most television. They are also, on average, older than age 54.
Hmmm, let’s see, heavy users of TV, older-did I mention many were unemployed or on fixed incomes? Most network advertisers couldn’t care less about reaching the consumers who would most benefit from description. Pity, since it costs about $4,000 to describe one hour of network programming, less than the catering bill on most shows. This should simply not be an issue. That it is speaks volumes about broadcasters’ so-called public service commitments.
This isn’t about special treatment or onerous burdens on license holders. It’s about Americans looking out for their own. As Joel Snyder, director of described media for the National Captioning Institute, so aptly puts it, “Description allows people who are blind to boldly go where everyone else has already gone.”