Audio-describing diversity, or addressing the elephant in the room

Strategy and language to tackle diversity in ITV’s Audio Description

This article sets out ITV’s journey in investigating and implementing new guidance for 2020, to govern how our Audio Description service (AD) conveys race and other visible diversity cues to blind and visually impaired audiences. This project came about because we identified the need to explore when and how we should describe the physical characteristics of the diverse range of characters or contributors appearing in ITV programmes. It became clear that not only did we need editorial guidelines to help our Audio Describers navigate this complex area, but we would also benefit from providing an extra place for more detailed visual overviews to be given — in the form of online Audio Introductions.

AD is an access service which provides a spoken narration to convey visual information. Its main audience is blind and visually impaired people, though the service is also accessed by users who have a temporary or situational need, and people with a wide range of additional support needs. Put simply, the role of the Audio Describer is determining the relevance of visual information for its audiences, and then deciding how to express it in words. This means that the AD audiences rely on the describer’s decisions to understand visual diversity cues and what meaning they may carry.

This process of decision-making has traditionally placed the highest priority on relevance to a programme’s plot — but where diversity is concerned, this can have unintended and negative consequences, including the unspoken assumption of a default (e.g. Whiteness), issues of censorship or erasure, and the matter of representation both for those being described and for the AD audience. These issues were highlighted in recent research by Royal Holloway University and VocalEyes that explored diversity in theatre AD (the report from this study can be read here).

2020 has seen issues around accessibility and access to information taking on a far greater reach than they have done before. And with the Black Lives Matter movement coming to the forefront of the national consciousness, it seems doubly fitting that we are addressing this.

ITV believes it’s important to listen, learn and make lasting changes.

The describer’s role continues to involve determining the relevance of visuals for the AD audience, but we now recognise that this ‘relevance’ can extend beyond the context of the programme and have a very real meaning in the world at large, when considering representation and inclusion. In the words of ITV’s Black Voices campaign from this year, “ITV believes it’s important to listen, learn and make lasting changes.”

The findings of this project and the measures we are putting in place as a result tie in with ITV’s Social Purpose and specifically its Diversity and Inclusion strategy. By presenting our new approach in this article, we are increasing the transparency of our decision making and bringing this debate into the public domain — to facilitate ongoing discussion and exploration of these issues both within ITV and with other broadcasters and content providers.

Background

Describing diversity is problematic for AD and especially for TV; descriptions are delivered in the gaps between the characters’ dialogue, so from the start we are limited by what space is available in a programme’s soundtrack. Describers are constantly juggling priorities, with many more things available to be described than there is space to convey. Sometimes we might only have time to convey one salient feature about a character and it can often be more important to describe something that links to the programme’s plot, such as getting across that someone is bald to set up a reference to this in the dialogue.

Another difficulty is balance. Describers in the UK have long aimed to describe race mainly when it is relevant to the plot — but this is problematic too. Describing one character’s race to link to a plot point immediately creates an imbalance which means that the race of other characters should be conveyed too, to avoid creating unspoken assumptions of one race being the norm and another being ‘other’. Given the time constraints I already described, it is rarely possible to do this justice.

A third problem comes from the ‘how’. There is an inherent difficulty in translating visual characteristics which are usually understood or noticed implicitly by the non-blind audience, who can ‘notice’ a character’s race if and when it becomes relevant to the programme, without necessarily having it at the forefront of their minds when that character first appears. By spelling something out in AD, we draw attention to it in the mind of the listener — so it’s vital to maintain a consistent tone and strike the right balance in terms of language. Poorly handled, the description could veer towards clinical or even potentially offensive language.

Blind and visually impaired users can’t appreciate progress in onscreen diversity if it’s not mentioned in the Audio Description.

Why is this an issue? This information can often have a bearing on programme plot and is often only presented visually. In these instances, describers know it is a difficult area to get right and our concern was that we might not always be conveying aspects of diversity as well as we should be. In a wider sense, there is a point to be made about onscreen diversity itself; for ITV’s blind and visually impaired audiences, the comprehension of any progress in this area is contingent on the information being made available in our AD.

The scope of the project was mapped out as covering three main areas. Firstly, looking at instances where visible diversity cues should be described and addressing this plot-based consideration that has been the generally adopted practice in the UK.

Second, we wanted to try and explore how this description should be done and in particular what user preference was in relation to giving an ethnicity a label or describing visual cues for them to interpret.

And third, given the time constraints that have partly contributed to this problem, there had to be an examination of when any additional or alternative description was going to be delivered — whether it was going to be possible to weave this into the regular AD, or if a different solution might be required.

Consultation

The project was inspired in part by a similar and much larger project run by VocalEyes and Royal Holloway, examining this same issue in relation to theatre AD..) While there are some very clear overlaps between the two areas, it was clear that some of the issues were specific to TV AD and that ITV would benefit from a dedicated study.

Our research process involved consulting with AD users from an ITV focus group, as well as with our team of describers, and volunteers from ITV Embrace, a networking group for employees from BAME backgrounds. Although we sought to include responses from as broad a group as possible in every sense, we were particularly keen to capture results from AD users with a range of visual experience, as the issues around describing diversity can have very different responses from users depending on their level of vision and lived experience.

The responses demonstrated a broad spectrum of views. While some respondents had never considered the issue before, for others it is of crucial importance and their good opinion of a broadcaster is contingent upon it. As expected, describers expressed insecurity about describing diversity and may avoid it for fear of getting it wrong or providing an imbalanced view.

Information about diversity should be audio-described wherever possible.

One thing that was conclusive is that information about diversity should be described wherever possible, because it is likely to be of interest to at least some of the audience.

We drew up new guidelines to govern our in-programme AD, in consultation with ITV’s Group Director of Diversity and Inclusion Ade Rawcliffe and Director of Accessibility David Padmore. These guidelines are based on this principle and also take into account feedback in other areas from all three survey groups. I’ll outline some of the key messages.

We should strive to provide physical descriptions where appropriate and endeavour to include diversity information as part of this. We should not presume a default to save time, because silence or ambiguity does not give an AD user an equivalent experience to a non-blind viewer.

Returning to that issue of balance, we should not let a desire for absolute balance preclude us from mentioning skin colour in descriptions; after all, we do not avoid saying that one character has a blonde ponytail because we cannot describe every character’s hairstyle.

Another major point was around remembering that we are primarily describing the visual appearance of a character and not an actor, with the aim of achieving parity with a non-blind audience member. So that means we shouldn’t avoid describing a character’s skin colour or ethnicity because we don’t know how the actor playing that character would identify themselves.

Coming on to the ‘how’, we were keen not to release strict guidance on terminology because, as with everything to do with AD, so much depends on the precise context. We do want descriptions to make use of broad labels (such as Black and White), as well as broad ethnic descriptions such as ‘South Asian origin’. We also welcome the use of more specific country-based terms if this is evident from the programme’s context, or otherwise conveyed by other visual cues (which we would strive to describe). On this point, describing features like hair, clothes, or other props that carry cultural significance is a vital component of effective AD; this should be used to enhance diverse descriptions, rather than as a substitute or euphemism for them.

One of the most important strategies we’re adopting is being able to open up the issue for debate and collaborative problem-solving. We recognise that successfully audio-describing diversity can mean taking a number of complex decisions, so are giving our describers the security to know that this is an area that can be approached by consensus. As a profession, we need to continue to consult to develop confidence and experience. The same mantra can be applied to other areas of our editorial approach, including disability and gender. And of course, maintaining diversity among the team that does the describing is key. As describers, determining relevance, we can never be entirely neutral agents so we need to consider how our own position might affect how we write our descriptions, while increasing our awareness of best practice, of our own biases and our lack of knowledge. This notion of increasing our own cultural competency as describers brings us full circle to ITV’s Black Voices campaign: listen, learn and make lasting changes.

What now?

We introduced our new guidelines to our team of describers in November, 2020 and going forward its principles are being adopted in all new description work we undertake.

To conclude, let me come back to Audio Introductions. It’s key that description of diversity is incorporated into the in-programme AD, and that’s what our guidance sets out to encourage. But there is another tool in our arsenal, in the form of additional online audiovisual content.

Audio Introductions are standard practice in live AD settings; at the theatre for example, a spoken introduction is delivered to users before a performance begins. It’s one of the things that can help theatre AD achieve a greater sense of parity because there is an opportunity to describe every character’s physical appearance in full, without any of the time constraints imposed by the play’s dialogue.

At ITV, we’re working towards introducing something similar. We envisage a piece of short-form audio-led content to accompany a drama series. It will provide an overview of a programme’s visuals so that users can begin a programme already having a clear mental picture of the various characters and locations. It’s something we have been exploring anyway, but the diversity project findings lend it a clear additional purpose as a place to provide a more balanced and equitable overview of a programme’s diverse cast — although it won’t replace this information being presented in the in-programme AD where there’s time to do so.

We still have a lot of work to do defining the specifications for our Audio Introductions, but we hope for the spoken elements to be complemented by elements from the programme’s soundtrack, with still images being used to aid recognition in partially sighted viewers. We hope they’ll be available on a dedicated YouTube channel, so that they can be accessible to the majority of ITV viewers, irrespective of their level of sight.

So, to wrap up, we’re doing more to ensure our AD users and actors can feel represented, and to convey a better idea of the state of onscreen diversity to our audiences. It’s clear that ongoing consultation is vital to keep this conversation going and to encourage other content providers to tackle the same problem. If you use our service, let us know how we’re doing! You can either contact ITV’s Viewer Services team or reach out on social media. And watch this space for more news on ITV’s Audio Introductions.

Jonathan Penny leads ITV’s in-house Audio Description department.

Written by

Audio Description lead at ITV. Theatre and opera describer. Board Trustee at VocalEyes.

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