by Diane Johnson
If you were blind how would you be able to keep up on a trending topic like the Olympics?
At Descriptive Video Works (DVW), we have been making recorded television programming accessible to people who are vision impaired and blind for 16 years. We started in Canada 2003 and then opened up in the US in 2011.
Before we could take on the Olympics, we had to figure out how to do Live Audio Description (Live AD) – something that was once dismissed as impossible. DVW was the North American pioneer for Live AD.
In 2010, CTV in Canada approached us to describe the Juno Awards, a Canadian award show, as well as the reality television show “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” in real time. The latter was especially good practice for the Olympics, as it involved describing bodies in motion and emotional events as they happened without the careful scripting that recorded television allows us to do.
When DVW handpicked the people we would train for Live AD, there were a number of key characteristics we were looking for that are not often found in one individual.
Our first live describer – now the manager of our Live Department – is an actress who had done improv and was already a well-established AD writer and voiceover artist, as well as being a bright, intelligent person with a great vocabulary.
We started doing Live AD for the London Olympics for CBC in Canada in 2012. We have done the AD for all the Olympics since, and in 2016, we started to also include the Paralympics. After some prompting by DVW, NBC agreed to engage DVW to do AD for the US for Rio 2016. We now cover both Canadian and US Olympics and Paralympics.
Before taking on the huge and unique project of live describing the Olympics, we asked ourselves the same question the networks were asking us, “Why do we need a describer when there is a commentator describing what is going on?” We engaged our Advisory Board, a crucial part of our process. Our Advisory Board is a group of people who are blind and visually impaired and are willing to give us frank feedback on the quality of our scripts, narration, and mixing. We asked them to explain the importance of AD for the Olympics by giving us an example. One response was that if someone has fallen off the balance beam, we can hear the audience response and the commentator tells us the basics of what has happened, but leaves out the details, such as that the paramedics are here now, teammates rush forward, etc.
There is so much of the experience that is not captured by the commentator in many sports, but it is an invisible problem to people who can see – it takes people who are blind to point out what they are missing.
For weeks before the event, our describers research the participants, the events, sports terms, and the city where the Olympics is taking place. They know they will have a very limited time to speak – being very careful to not speak over the commentators – but they are ready to fill in the silences that are available in the most informed and entertaining way possible.
We have two describers in the recording booth at each television studio receiving the live feed directly from the Olympics. They arrive an hour before broadcast time, which makes for some interesting shift times, depending on the time zone of that year’s Olympics. That hour is for tech setup to make sure that when they go live, their descriptions are broadcast clearly. The two describers work as a team, alternating between who is speaking and who is researching (and resting their voice) depending on who is stronger on a particular sport. Our two describer teams – one in Toronto, Ontario, for the CBC and one in Stamford, Connecticut, for NBC – also communicate with each other, sharing details and tips both in advance and during the Olympic events. Our teams are dedicated to providing superior Live AD for every event. They may work eight or more hours at a time, which is quite the marathon because whoever is on the microphone at any given time must be constantly alert, ready to jump in with a description at every opportunity. To help, the studios provide our describers with a dedicated producer to help with everything from tech issues to supplying them with the most up to minute information.
As one of our Olympics describers explains, “When I first started doing Live Description, I realized that I needed to be on all the time and couldn’t miss a minute. I also had to be clear on all the details and know when to jump in.
I also had to understand the style of the commentator in a show like the Olympics, to the point of knowing when he might take a breath so I could insert the description as quickly as possible without stepping on his voice. It’s an exhausting and rewarding challenge. Each event is different, and I know for the hours I am live I can’t change a thing; what I say goes to air, no room for error.”
After each Olympics, the feedback we receive from the audience encourages DVW and the broadcasters to increase the coverage the next time. This year both Canadian and US broadcasters are increasing the daily coverage from what they did in previous years.
We heard comments like these ones:
“I’ve been blind since birth and have always enjoyed watching the Olympics. My husband has been describing them to me, but he doesn’t include the emotion and full description that your describers do.
When one of the winners was on the podium you told me exactly what was going on; she held the medal to her heart and had tears running down her cheeks. My husband has done a good job for 30 years, but you added such depth and emotion to it. Thank you and please keep on doing it!”
And from Michael:
“I have to contact you and tell you that for the last 3 nights I have been watching television with tears rolling down my cheeks. Why? Because I have been watching the 2016 Olympics in Rio on NBC. The reason I am crying is because NBC has decided to edit The Olympics with dvs/ad (descriptive video services/audio description) during prime time. This is a big deal! I cannot begin to tell you the level of joy, pleasure, and appreciation I am experiencing because NBC has proven that they do care about the millions of people like me who are blind/visually impaired. I cannot thank you enough! Would you please pass this on to the people who made this possible?
“I do want to ask if NBC News would acknowledge that they are editing the Olympics with dvs/ad because I don’t think any network has ever done this with such a big event. I am telling you this is a big deal for those of us who are blind/visually impaired. I think NBC should get some big “pats on the back” for stepping up.
“I would hope that Lester Holt would make a comment on NBC Nightly News that NBC is proud to edit the 2016 Rio Olympics in descriptive video services for those millions of Americans who are blind or visually impaired.”
“Again, this is a bigger deal than you know! We have been included, not rejected and left out!”
We agree that this is a big deal and we feel inclusion is important, ensuring everyone has the same access to entertainment, sports, and educational programming.
Diane Johnson is the President of Descriptive Video Works, a company that specializes in audio description/described video. Diane started the company in Canada 16 years ago and expanded to the US in 2012 when AD was mandated there. Diane was previously in radio and television and worked for Disney and she saw the opportunity to use her broadcast skills to meet the needs of people who are blind and visually impaired. Contact: email@example.com