I’ve just received, and have happily started watching, Doctor Who Series 9 on Blu-ray. I’m drafting a separate review post of that as I go along, but coming from a visually impaired person’s perspective, I’m very pleased to see they’re continuing with audio navigation and audio description on the discs. Sherlock gets the same treatment as well.
It’s not a feature I personally need to use, but I do have friends who use it. And it’s understandably frustrating that such audio assistance isn’t more widespread.
Audio description is extremely helpful for people who can’t see very well or at all. If you’re not familiar with it, you basically get an additional voice on the audio track, describing things for you in spare moments when nobody else is saying anything. They’ll only describe the key points of course, as they won’t have time to get too detailed. But it can make the whole experience a lot more engaging and understandable for the blind and visually impaired. For example here’s a trailer for Frozen with audio description added, the first thing that came up on Youtube:
Note: Youtube doesn’t have Audio Description as a built in feature – anybody who wants to add it to their video needs to upload a separate version with it on the soundtrack already. This is cumbersome for content creators and viewers, so it would be fantastic if people could just add Audio Description as a separate track, just as we can with closed captions. A number of bloggers are now campaigning to persuade Youtube to add this feature, under the hashtag #AudioDescribeYT. You can see more about this in videos by James Rath (who started the campaign), Annie Elaney, Abby Sams and Emily Davison.
Audio description isn’t always an easy thing to record I’m sure. It seems logical to assume that the narrator will watch the show first to ensure they understand what’s what and who’s who, making notes on what they’re going to say and when in the recording. Some describers are naturally better than others – having spoken to friends who use the service, it’s clear some describers don’t say enough, and occasionally they’ll even get things wrong. But on the whole it’s clearly very valuable and worthwhile to them.
Some modern TVs have an audio description option built-in these days. If you can find it in the menu system, turn it on and give it a go, just to see what it’s like. It might seem a bit strange at first, but it’s not as distracting as you might think. I can watch TV shows with friends who have the description turned on, and it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes it does even help me a bit, especially if there’s writing on the screen. Saves me reading it to my friend if someone else is doing it.
Audio description is often available in cinemas as well, which can again be very useful – e.g. see this blog post by the Blind Spot, as one example I quickly found on Google. There are also listings of cinemas and DVDs offering audio description on a site called Your Local Cinema. It’s a lot more difficult to find it on internet streaming services, however, although it is being offered on a limited number of titles from places like Netflix and iTunes. I would hope many streaming services are compatible with screen readers these days, so the text on the menu screens can be spoken to you, but in terms of audio description for the shows and movies themselves on those services, I know there’s still a lot of work to be done.
It’s DVDs and Blu-rays where I most notice the inclusion (or not) of audio description though. Quite a lot of titles do have audio description these days, but a great many don’t. It’s particularly strange when audio description is provided for the TV broadcast of a show, but then isn’t included on the DVD release. If you already have the descriptive track available, why can’t a bit of extra editing time be spent adding it on the disc?
There are also cases where, for some series of TV shows, they will include the track on some series box sets, but not all of them. For instance, the ITV series Lewis has audio description on the first series DVD, but not on all the others. I assume they continued using description on the TV broadcasts… or did they? I don’t watch the show, but it’s a show my mother (who’s registered blind) enjoys, which is why I know about the DVDs. She can still watch it without the audio description, as she can follow it well enough to understand the basic story. But it’s not as fulfilling as it otherwise would be, and there are going to be things she’s missing.
Where DVDs and Blu-rays can really fall down for the visually impaired, though, is navigation – finding the episodes and special features you want to watch in the first place. If you can’t see, and you’ve got nobody to help you, then finding a particular episode or feature you want can be difficult.
For me, I can see well enough to use most DVDs easily. But occasionally I will come across a disc where it’s really hard to see what I’m selecting, because the colour on each option barely changes as I move around with the arrow keys, or the marker for each option gets lost against a background of a similar colour.
So if you can’t see the menus at all, it can be even more difficult, as I’ve observed with my blind parents. My father in particular watched a lot of DVDs like me, and often had trouble trying to find his way around their menus, so I would have to help him out. And I do the same for my mother when she wants me to put on a DVD for her.
In cases like that, the general workaround (as my dad used at least) is to hit Enter on the remote when you reach the main menu – because the default option is usually “Play” or “Play All” – and then either binge watch the whole disc, or use the chapter skip buttons to jump ahead as far as you want. It won’t help you get to any special features, which are always separate, but you can watch the main show at least. And if there’s audio description available, many DVD remote controls have an Audio button you can hit to switch tracks, like you would when selecting an audio commentary.
However, that simple method operation can be made more frustrating by a number of factors.
For example, many DVDs have silent menus, so you don’t know when they’ve actually loaded if you can’t see it, nor do you know where you are in the system if you’ve accidentally hit an arrow key and got yourself lost. If you’re lucky, you’ll at least get a noisy logo screen or two as the disc loads, which can act as landmarks to tell you how long to wait. And if you’re even luckier, you can use the chapter skip buttons to bypass those opening screens. But most of the time you just have to wait – you’ll have either worked out how long the loading takes, or you just keep hitting Enter on your remote until it works.
Copyright notices, piracy warnings and logos, important though they are to the studios, are frustrating for sighted people as it is, because nobody pays attention to them and it just delays things. So they’re even more pointless when you can’t see them to begin with. Trailers for other products, especially if they can’t be skipped, are also a nuisance – you’ll only watch them once at most, then ignore them every other time you watch the disc after that. Stick a flyer inside the case to advertise other films or DVDs if you must, then we can choose whether to dispose of it or not.
I will make one exception to the above though, as stand-up comedian Ross Noble uses weird and wonderful spoof copyright notices on some of his DVDs. I’ve had to freeze-frame or photograph the screen to read them occasionally, as they can go by quite quickly, but it’s worth it. You really get good value for money with his discs, he often packs them out with so much great stuff.
Anyway, that aside, here are some other frustrations that can occur with DVDs:
- The DVD menu has an opening animation, so that the Play option isn’t immediately active until the intro has finished, adding an extra delay. If you can’t see the screen, it won’t be obvious when that transition is complete.
- The Play All option isn’t the default when the menu loads. This is rare, but can happen. I have some old DVD releases of Minder, where one of the special features is the first option, and you actually have to move down so you can hit play. (As an aside, Network Distributing have hinted at new DVD releases of Minder on the way, which I’m very excited about given their excellent work on The Sweeney and The Professionals. Looking forward to their Kenny Everett releases as well.)
- There isn’t a Play All option at all, and/or you can’t skip from one episode to the next with the chapter buttons. There are some DVDs which will force you to select each episode individually, which can be quite irritating.
- You’re prevented from switching audio tracks when watching the programme, meaning you have to dig through the menu system to turn on audio description or commentaries instead. This is a silly way of doing things, as you can’t select audio description in the first place if you can’t see the screen.
- Double-sided discs. I hate these, because it’s impossible to know which way up to put them in the player, given that both sides look the same. They may have very tiny writing in the central disc, which needs a good magnifier to read, or there won’t be anything there at all. You just have to take a 50/50 chance and see what you get when you load the disc up.
On the other hand, however, some DVD producers really do work hard to make their discs easy and fun to use. The team making the Doctor Who and Sherlock DVDs are a particularly notable example, because they always make the effort to include audio navigation, to help guide you through the menus. I don’t know how easy it is to embed an extra menu system like that, but it’s great that they have. The fact that they’ve continued doing it for 8 series of Doctor Who so far (series 1 didn’t have it) suggests people are finding it useful.
If you’ve not seen DVDs with this on (I don’t know if there are many, or even any, beyond Doctor Who and Sherlock), then it works quite simply. When the disc loads, a female voice explains what the disc is – e.g. Doctor Who Blu-Ray Series 9 Box Set, Disc 1″. The same text comes on screen in large print as well. Then, after a copyright notice that she thankfully doesn’t speak, she returns, instructing you to press Enter if you want to use audio navigation. As she’s saying these things, the text comes on screen in very large, clear print, which is great as well.
If you press Enter on your remote at this point, you get taken straight to a special large print menu. Unlike the standard menu on the disc, this isn’t animated and doesn’t have any music. It’s a very simple plain background, decorated at the edges away from the text, which is in a large, clear font.
The lady describer will first announce what menu you’re on, and how many items there are. Then there’s a pause while the menu switches to the audio for the first option – at which point she’ll announce “Play All”. You can then use the arrow keys to move up and down the menu, and she’ll speak each option. There’s a slight pause each time you move, as the menu reloads to pick up the correct piece of audio, but it’s not too slow.
Another nice touch is that the DVD automatically assumes you’ll want audio description on the episodes, if you’ve chosen to use audio menus. That means you don’t need to select it – you can just hit Play All to start watching with description included. If you want to turn audio description off, you’ll have to go into Audio Options to do so.
All the options in the sub-menus also get spoken to you, though they could be better. When you go into the episode menu, for instance, the lady will speak the actual name of the Christmas special (“Last Christmas”) – but for regular episodes she’ll just say “Episode 1”, “Episode 2”, etc. Those meaningless titles are given on screen as well. It would be better if the actual episode titles were shown and spoken, as it would be more meaningful, one assumes. Still, at least you do get a prompt of some sort – maybe episode numbers are enough for people. If you’re going to watch the series in order, then you only need to know the numbers rather than the names. But the names would still be nice to have.
The same issue happens on the special features menu, where she says “Special Feature 1”, “Special Feature 2”, etc – despite the fact that the special feature names are displayed in full on screen. So if you can’t see and you’re after a particular extra feature like the prequel, you’ll just have to play each feature until you get lucky. I don’t know if any of the extras have audio description as well, as I haven’t tried it, but I suspect most won’t have it. But that doesn’t mean blind people can’t watch them, it’s still possible to follow them.
As I don’t normally use audio navigation, I’ve checked the Series 2 DVD, and back then the special features were announced properly on its audio menus e.g. “Billie Piper’s Video Diary”. So it seems a bit unfair that they aren’t doing the same now. If they can get the narrator to record the words “Last Christmas” for the Christmas episode, and if they have the time to put together a menu with the features names written out, one wonders why they couldn’t get the narration lady to read out the other episode titles and features. If she’s not available, how about someone else? Maybe even a member of the cast – how cool would it be to have the Doctor himself read out the options for you? Even regular-sighted fans would be tempted to use the audio menus then I’d imagine.
Still, those small niggles aside, the menus serve their purpose very well. And it’s great that audio navigation is supplied at all, as it does seem very rare on DVDs and Blu-Rays. I appreciate there are limitations in authoring DVDs that may make this kind of thing tricky to add, and there will be some bare-bones DVDs without any extras for which audio navigation isn’t really necessary. But it is clearly possible, so it would be great to see it more widespread. Surely major film studios with all their riches and technical wizardry could afford to do audio navigation for instance? Or is there simply not the demand for it? But then, if the demand wasn’t there, why do they keep doing it for the Doctor Who discs?
As I say, it’s great to see that the BBC have made that level of effort with the show. It would be nice to see it happen more from them and other production companies, along with audio description becoming more widespread for TV, film and online services in general, as time goes on and technology improves. It takes a bit of extra time to put together, I know, but it does enrich and enhance the experience for so many people, so I think it’s worth it.