ABC and SBS launch audio description service for blind or visually-impaired audiences

Both ABC and SBS have announced the launch of audio description (AD) services across their networks, allowing blind or visually-impaired audiences to enjoy their content.

The decision comes through a Federal Government grant and rollout across the networks will be complete by June 28. Both SBS and ABC received a grant of $2m each for the updates in 2020-21.

Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Paul Fletcher MP, said AD is a necessary innovation for the national broadcasters.

“As our national broadcasters, it is important that the ABC and SBS provide greater accessibility to content for Australians who are blind or have a vision impairment so that they can better experience television programs,” Fletcher said.

AD is the auditory narration of a TV program, describing important visual elements, and can be turned on or off as needed.

Around 14-hours of AD content will be available each week across all ABC and SBS channels, including Australian content such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Bluey.

ABC managing director, David Anderson, welcomed the new service to the ABC, saying it would be a game-changer for the blind community.

“Since we began our trial of the service earlier this month, we have had a huge response from users,” he said.

“People who are blind or vision-impaired will now be able to enjoy many of their favourite ABC Television shows alongside their sighted friends and family.”

ABC shows that will be audio described include Back Roads, Gardening Australia, The Heights and Compass on ABC’s main channel, Little J and Big Cuz, Bluey and Play School on ABC Kids and High Fidelity on ABC Comedy. Repeat episodes of Four Corners, Australian Story and Foreign Correspondent will also be audio described and broadcast.

“I’m pleased our national broadcasters are embracing new ways to serve their audiences and broaden the variety of content available to blind and vision impaired Australians,” said Fletcher.

To ensure the new service meets industry standards and the expectations of the blind or vision-impaired communities, ABC and SBS partnered with the Centre for Inclusive Design to undertake research with users from across Australia. The research has informed both broadcasters on the best design and functionality of the service to make it as accessible as possible.

The range of AD titles coming to SBS include documentary series Who Gets to Stay in Australia?, Where Are You Really From?, Great British Railway Journeys, the iconic Godfather film series and The X Files on SBS VICELAND.

SBS has been running a successful trial of AD across selected SBS and SBS VICELAND programming since early April. During that time, more than 135 hours of AD content have been shown and SBS has been seeking feedback from audiences to help inform and improve how it delivers the service.

SBS managing director, James Taylor, said: “We’re thrilled to be making many of SBS’ distinctive and much-loved programs available for more Australians to enjoy with audio description. SBS’ documentaries, dramas and movies take audiences on journeys around the world, create national conversations about issues impacting our society, and provide unique opportunities to be entertained. The launch of audio description is an important step in continuing to improve the accessibility of our content and ensure more Australians are included and able to engage with and experience our programming.

“I’d like to thank the groups and representatives who have been consulting with us and advocating for the many Australians who are blind or vision-impaired, as well as those who have taken part in our research and provided valuable insights as we have trialled the service. This has been vital in informing our approach. We continue to seek feedback from audiences to ensure we’re best meeting their needs.”

Emma Bennison, CEO of Blind Citizens Australia (BCA), has welcomed the launch.

“The introduction of audio description is a landmark step and life-changing milestone in making TV more accessible for people Australians are blind or vision-impaired,” said Bennison.

“BCA and other blindness organisations have worked closely with both SBS and the ABC to facilitate their roll-out, and we acknowledge their commitment to providing a quality service that truly meets the needs of our community. We look forward more Australians now being able to enjoy TV with their family and friends, and the continued development of these important services.”

Manisha Amin, CEO of the Centre for Inclusive Design, said: “We are so pleased that ABC and SBS involved users in the design and testing of the new system. Given the different television sets and ways that we watch TV these days it was important to gain real feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

“It was clear from our research that people were keen to have a quality audio description service. This is the first step on the journey. It’s heartening to see both broadcasters taking an inclusive design approach to their services with audience needs at the core of their offering.”


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