It has always been something of a running joke here in England, where you have to buy a license from the government in order to watch TV (I kid you not, it helps fund the good old BBC), that blind people get a 50 percent reduction on the annual £135 ($271) fee.
Some might say that not being able to see the programming content of British television is a good thing, others that you can already listen to radio for free so why bother paying for the privilege?
However, in a similar way that subtitles and closed captioning have allowed deaf people to enjoy TV and video output for years, technology is now bringing the same benefit to blind folk.
The technology in question being Audio Description (AD) which essentially adds a secondary audio soundtrack to programming, taking advantage of pauses within the spoken dialog to explain visual plot points and environments. It is not a totally new technology, but up until now you have needed to invest in a separate set-top box in order to add this narrative voice to your telly.
What is new is that Sony has announced that all of its BRAVIA television sets will now provide integrated Audio Description capability as standard.
This has been made possible by the provision of a more powerful audiovisual processor within the TV, one that can decode multiple audio channels simultaneously. Sony is, naturally, quite excited about this development. Andreas Ditter, VP of Operations for Sony TV in Europe, says that providing access to Audio Description as standard in combination with a commitment to raise awareness of Audio Description “aims to increase the number of programs, broadcasters and television manufacturers that offer the service.”
And there lies the rub. Audio Description technology has become something of a chicken and egg story.
The broadcasters argue that there is little point adding Audio Description to programming output when hardly anyone has a TV set that can decode it. The electronics companies say there is little point developing and selling such devices when the market does not exist, because there are hardly any TV channels broadcasting with Audio Description included.
Governments and legislators chip in that the combined lack of enthusiasm from both sides of the TV industry suggesting it is pointless in legislating to force them into making the technology available when people clearly do not want it.
Meanwhile, the blind and partially sighted are, on the whole, not even aware that the technology exists.
The exception to the rule would appear to be the UK which does have legislation in place, making it a legal requirement for 76 key broadcasters (since 2005 in fact) to carry Audio Description content. The BBC, being the best known of British broadcasters, has to produce, are you ready for this, at least 8 percent of its output with the technology included. When similar legislation was suggested for the US, it was pretty much laughed out of court.
There is every chance that Audio Description will be the great technology that television forgot, despite the best efforts of Sony and Andrea Ditter’s call to arms for the cause: “With the recent advances in digital technology, television is now something that can, and should, be enjoyed by everyone, including the visually impaired and hard of hearing. We hope that other manufacturers follow our example, thereby leaving no excuse for broadcasters not to offer this service.”