Check out the latest edition of Access Radio’s No Labels podcast to hear our chief executive Wendy talking about Able’s captioning and audio description services. Host Thomas Bryan asks Wendy about accessible technology, online TV platforms, plus a couple of her favourite songs.
Listen to the podcast, or see below for a full transcript.
No Labels – March 2018
Wendy Youens – Able Chief Executive
Thomas Bryan – Access Radio
THOMAS BRYAN: And welcome to the March edition of No Labels. This afternoon’s guest is Wendy from Able. Welcome, Wendy, to the show.
WENDY YOUENS: Thanks, Thomas. Great to be here.
THOMAS: So, Wendy, Able. That’s an unusual organisation name. What is Able and what’s your role?
WENDY: So, Able is a not-for-profit organisation, and we provide closed captioning and audio description for video content across New Zealand. So I’m chief executive of Able, and Able’s been around for coming up five years. And we are funded by NZ On Air to provide closed captioning and audio description for TVNZ, MediaWorks and Prime, and audio description is available on TVNZ.
THOMAS: So, what can you tell us about closed captioning and audio description? What are they?
WENDY: Yeah, sure. So captioning is-- basically it’s like foreign-film subtitling. So it’s a transcription of the programme audio, and it’s text that usually appears at the bottom of the screen. And on television it’s as simple as turning the captions on using your remote control. So generally you press the Subtitle button and captions appear at the bottom programmes when those captions are available.
THOMAS: And so what sort of level of programme – as in content-wise, hours-wise – would have captioning on TV?
WENDY: So we provide captioning for about 300 hours of content across the different broadcasters per week. So that covers all of prime time on the main free-to-air channels. And we caption daily news bulletins for TVNZ, quite a range of sporting events on Prime. So there’s quite a high level of captioning available, but it’s never as much as what people want and what people need. So captioning is beneficial for people that are Deaf or hard of hearing and also for anyone that’s struggling to hear or understand their television.
THOMAS: Right. OK. And audio description?
WENDY: So, audio description is for people that are blind or vision-impaired or otherwise struggling to see their TV for some reason. And audio description is basically how it sounds. So it’s a descriptive service that provides an additional audio track that is explaining what is happening on screen. So if you’re unable to see the television, you’re able to hear a description of what’s happening so that you can follow along with the programme.
THOMAS: Oh, OK. And how many hours a week would one expect to have audio description?
WENDY: So at the moment we’re providing just over 40 hours per week of audio description on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ 2.
THOMAS: Right. But not for Prime?
WENDY: No. So there’s no audio description available for any of the other broadcasters at the moment in New Zealand. So it’s still a reasonably small service. It’s grown quite a bit since it launched back in 2011. I’m sure you’ll remember that, Thomas. We launched with about two hours a week of Coronation Street.
THOMAS: I couldn’t possibly comment.
WENDY: (LAUGHS) We very quickly heard from blind and vision-impaired people that they would like more programmes than Coronation Street. But that was a great test-run for us to learn about providing the service, and we were able to quite quickly start to grow. And, really, over the last couple of years the service has plateaued out at about 40 hours a week, and that’s because Able essentially uses all the funding that we get from NZ On Air to provide as much captioning and audio description as possible, but unless we get extra funding, we can’t provide extra services.
THOMAS: And I guess I must declare a bit of an interest here. Audio description, for me, has been the best thing that’s happened to television. I stopped watching it or would have it on in the background and just do other things and not really engage with it because so many programmes were so visual. Now, we do have a sample of audio description which we’re going to play, which is from the Hillary programme?
WENDY: Yes. That’s right. It’s just a short sample of audio description that we provided for the Hillary miniseries that was played on TVNZ a couple of years ago, and it’s quite an iconic New Zealand moment that was recreated in the Hillary drama, so it will give listeners a little taste of what audio description is like.
THOMAS: Great. All right, we’ll go with that and we’ll come back in a few seconds.
AUDIO DESCRIBER: Tenzing and Ed trod towards the camp.
MAN: Give me the cup.
AUDIO DESCRIBER: Leaping up, George gathers a thermos and two cups. He barrels towards Tenzing and Ed.
GEORGE LOWE: So, how did it go?
EDMUND HILLARY: Well, George,… we knocked the bastard off.
GEORGE LOWE: Thought you probably must have.
AUDIO DESCRIBER: Their faces are serious. A smile creeps on to George’s.
GEORGE: Oh, Ed! I knew you would! I knew it! Tenzing, come here!
THOMAS: So, Wendy, how do people access audio description on their TV?
WENDY: So accessing audio description is essentially activating another language on your television settings. So on your remote control you can select a different audio language to listen to. So generally when you’re watching TV and you don’t have anything selected, you’re listening to the English audio, and that’s actually, aside from audio description, that’s the only other audio track available in New Zealand. But if you want to hear audio description, you simply select audio description in your language settings. So for all newer set-top boxes you can select audio description, but for some older set-top boxes, they don’t have an audio description option, in which case you can select the Italian language channel, which is a bit unusual, but it’s an effective way of making sure that the service is available for people with older set-top boxes. So the settings are different for different platforms. So if you’re watching TV through Sky or Freeview or Vodafone there will be a slightly different way of accessing audio description. But instructions are available on our website, which is www.able.co.nz. Or people can ring Able and we’ll talk them through setting up audio description on their television.
THOMAS: Great. So I’ve been following some of the English dramas that have been on television the last few Sundays, and I must admit, lots of visual scenes but lots of great audio description, and would really encourage anybody who wants to find out more about what’s happening in a programme, who has difficulty seeing the television, to activate that audio description. Especially in some of those dramas, it’s really great.
WENDY: Fantastic. Our audio describers work hard to very succinctly describe what’s happening. Some of those dramas, they’re so rich in visual activity, but the audio describers do a great job of finding ways of describing things quickly and efficiently that it just brings some colour and life to the programme that you’d otherwise miss out on.
THOMAS: So the programmes that we see and hear in New Zealand for captioning and audio description, are they only produced in New Zealand, the content? I know other programmes, like on Netflix, for example, and on the Apple platform, there are some programmes that have audio description – we don’t access those programmes so we could have more content with captioning or audio description?
WENDY: It’s quite a complicated situation, actually. At Able we caption and audio describe programmes in a variety of ways. So if it’s a local programme, we’ll do it ourselves from scratch because there’s nothing else available, so that’s our only option. But for internationally produced programmes, often they have been captioned or audio described in their country of origin or for a platform like Netflix or Apple TV. So we’ll try to access those captions and audio description where possible, and we usually pay a copyright fee to use those. So again it comes back to funding for us. We buy as much as we possibly can within our resources. But it is—Audio description in particular is a reasonably new service worldwide, and buying and selling those files is still quite a new thing. So we’re still approaching different providers in countries overseas to try and work out deals so that we can access more audio description. But essentially, if it’s been audio described overseas, we’ll do our best to source that file, because it saves us time and it means that we can spend our time audio describing more local content.
THOMAS: So for someone who’s producing the captioning and audio description for a programme – like a 30-minute episode of something – how long does it actually take to produce the content for that?
WENDY: Yeah, people are often quite surprised, because I think it takes longer than people think. So captioning and audio description can take different amounts of time, but it really depends on how much dialogue and how much audio there is to describe or to—for audio description, it’s about how much space there is to describe in. So for a half-an-hour programme, for captioning it might take three or four hours, and for audio description, an episode of Shortland Street, for instance, which we audio describe five days a week on TVNZ 2, only takes between one and two hours, because it’s quite a short programme and it’s very dialogue-heavy, so there’s only a small amount of gaps to describe in – there’s not a lot of space for descriptions. But if you had a feature film that didn’t have very much dialogue at all, that could take several days to audio describe, because it had so much space for descriptions. So it can really vary.
THOMAS: That’s really quite a labour-intensive option, isn’t it, then?
WENDY: Yes, definitely. But we know that audio description really adds a lot of value to those longer feature films or documentaries, where there is a lot of space, because there’s obviously things happening on screen that aren’t being explained through the dialogue or the voiceover of the actual programme, so that audio description really adds a lot to it.
THOMAS: So, music. Big Yellow Taxi. That’s an intriguing choice.
WENDY: Yes, I found it difficult to choose some of my favourite songs, actually. But I do love Joni Mitchell, and Big Yellow Taxi is a pretty iconic song of hers. But I do like—You know, Big Yellow Taxi is talking about progress. So there’s a line in there about paving paradise to put up a parking lot – that’s the main line of the song. And that always makes me think that progress isn’t always a good thing and that also I guess it ties into accessibility. So we can move forward and make progress, but actually it’s really important to make sure that you’re making things better than they were before. And I think that’s something that, in New Zealand, as accessibility services like captioning and audio description move forward, that as we launch new services and new ways of watching content that it’s really important to make sure that while you’re launching a new service, you’re actually thinking about making things better than they were before and so obviously thinking about accessibility and captioning and audio description is really important. So, yeah, Big Yellow Taxi has a lot of different themes, but also it is a pretty great song to listen to.
THOMAS: Right, let’s go with Big Yellow Taxi.
Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi plays.
THOMAS: My good old protest days. We won’t go too much into that. Thanks, Wendy. Hey, so different platforms. So we have things like Netflix and Apple and the like that provide audio description. But also with TVNZ they have their OnDemand. I understand through my own experience and through feedback from others that you can’t get captioning and audio description on the OnDemand platform.
WENDY: That’s right. So at Able we think it’s a real shame that there is no captioning or audio description available on TVNZ OnDemand, and also ThreeNow, TV3’s platform, doesn’t supply captioning either. Yeah, it’s an interesting situation here in New Zealand where there’s no legislation requiring broadcasters to provide any access services. So the access services that are provided are funded by NZ On Air through Able, and so broadcasters at this stage have chosen not to develop their platforms to supply the captioning and audio description that we provide for broadcast.
THOMAS: Which is different from other countries, is that right? Like, with the UK, with the BBC platform.
WENDY: Yeah, that’s right. So in the UK and in Australia and the US they do have legislation that requires access services, at the least for free-to-air television, and some of those countries require the broadcaster to provide that on their online platforms as well. And so we don’t have that here in New Zealand, and the broadcasters have really developed their platforms without accessibility in mind. And so what that means is TVNZ OnDemand, it doesn’t actually have the capability right now to play captioning or audio description, and so if TVNZ were to decide that it wanted to supply those services, it would need to develop the platform to have that capability. So we’re definitely talking to them very actively about both captioning and audio description, because at Able we think that actually the investment that the Government and the taxpayer is making in supplying these access services, it would just be great to have that available for longer. So at the moment it’s available when it’s on television and if someone’s managed to remember to record it. But then if you want to watch something a few days after it went to air or even further down the track, at the moment that’s just not possible with captions or audio description.
THOMAS: And I guess for those of us who do have recorders, quite often those recorders aren’t accessible anyway. So you have to have someone either sighted or work out a pattern on how to use the recorder yourself.
THOMAS: And then hopefully when you’ve selected the programme you want to play back, it’s the right one.
WENDY: That’s right. I know. And that’s something that at Able we — when we’re talking to broadcasters or companies that are launching platforms – we try to talk to them about is actually design your platform with accessibility in mind. So don’t just supply the service but make sure that the service is able to be accessed by the people that want and need it.
THOMAS: Which is quite interesting, because Vodafone TV have just released a new set-top box which doesn’t have any talking menus, and 1 and 2, they don’t have a 1 and 2+. I think the discussion I had with someone in the store was, ‘Well, they can’t do that, because there’s the OnDemand app and people would use that as opposed to going to 1+ or 2+ or recording 1 or 2.’ So how true that information is-- because I’m always mindful sometimes that you ask someone who’s selling a piece of equipment, they may not actually have all the details that somebody in the head office may have.
WENDY: Yeah, absolutely. Yes, there’s definitely been some positive developments in accessible media, but it would be great to see more companies getting on board and prioritising accessibility. Because I think often people don’t think about it until they’re asked about it, and then it’s almost too late because the product’s been designed or it’s been released. So it is about having those conversations earlier, and it’s just a tricky one.
THOMAS: It is. So, you’ve said you’ve worked for Able for five years.
WENDY: That’s right.
THOMAS: So what made you come and work for Able?
WENDY: So I actually—Before I worked for Able, I used to work for TVNZ, and that is when TVNZ actually provided captioning and audio description services from within the company, and they were also funded by NZ On Air to do that. So I actually started out at TVNZ back in 2007 as a captioner. So, yeah, that was first job out of university. I studied English Literature down at Otago University and moved up to Auckland and started working at TVNZ as a captioner. And by the time I left TVNZ I was managing the TVNZ Access Services department, and that naturally led to my role at Able leading the Able team. And I think was led to work in accessibility really just through a—you know, it was just a mixed bag of interests around language, television, accessibility. You know, it was—it’s a very niche area, but it’s actually very satisfying to work in this area. I think television, while it might be seen as entertainment by some people, actually, it’s about social inclusion and it’s about being able to share in conversations about TV programmes or news information. And by providing captioning and audio description, we’re removing some of those barriers for Deaf and hard of hearing of blind and vision-impaired people. And that’s just really satisfying to be involved with. And I think I probably speak for the whole Able team when I say that we really get a kick out of people enjoying our work and giving us feedback about it.
THOMAS: Well, as I said, I’m biased. I certainly do. So, what’s your favourite TV programme?
WENDY: Ooh, favourite TV programme… You know, I’m really enjoying The Good Wife at the moment on Netflix.
THOMAS: On Netflix?!
WENDY: Yeah, I know. Netflix. I know. I should be saying one of the broadcasters. But I am really enjoying The Good Wife, which is a legal drama. And I also, over summer, really enjoyed The Crown, again on Netflix. So that’s—Maybe that’s a generational thing – I’m not sure. But they do have good accessibility.
THOMAS: So with Netflix, are they the— both English programmes that you’re watching?
WENDY: Yes, they are both English programmes. There is a lot of foreign-language content on Netflix as well.
THOMAS: There is quite a lot of audio description on Netflix. We were watching Luther, a British drama. I would never have watched it if it hadn’t been for audio description.
WENDY: Yes. Netflix is really growing the amount of audio description they have available, which is great to see. And they have 100% captioning, as well, as well as other language subtitling. So they’re really doing well in the accessibility stakes, and great to see that amount of audio description growing as well.
THOMAS: So, we have another song. Now, which one have you got coming up next?
WENDY: I think we should play My Little Ruin by Glen Hansard. So, Glen Hansard is another favourite of mine, and I came across his music in the indie film Once, which was back in the early 2000s, I think. And then a few years ago I went to this amazing concert at the Auckland Festival in the Auckland Town Hall with Glen Hansard. He’s an Irish musician, and he turned the Town Hall into a foot-stamping Irish pub gig. So, yeah, this is one of my favourites of his music.
THOMAS: Excellent. Well, Wendy, thanks for coming in this afternoon. Really enjoyed having you on the show and really keen to find out more about changes within the platforms and content and recommend anyone sign up to the Able newsletter off Able’s website. Thanks, Wendy, and let’s go with your Irish party.
WENDY: Thanks, Thomas.