Video Description – Audio Description – Descriptive – Described

One of the most frustrating hurdles in the way of making TV and movies accessible to the blind is, essentially, one of semantics and confusion.


–          Descriptive Video

–          Described Video

–          Audio Description

–          Video Description


Four terms, all separate, all meaning essentially the same, yet with subtle differences. It’s maddening to those of us who do this for a living, even more so for the producers, networks and government agencies that regulate them, but especially for the consumer, the vision-impaired public. So here’s a little explanation/history/grammar lesson to clear the muddy waters.


The original term was Audio Description. In a way, it’s still what makes the most sense. For someone who can’t see, the obvious way to describe anything is via audio. Audio Description, or AD, started in places like museums and exhibits. Later on, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, it migrated to live theatre, and it was during that transition that it became obvious that describing action is very different to describing a static display.


When the idea took hold that this could apply to TV and movies, the term changed to Video Description. Now, the video refers not to the medium through which the description is available, but to what is being described. Video Description still makes sense, although the nuance is that it refers only to Audio Description when applied to video or film productions.


And then we got DVS. The great and talented folk at the Media Access Group of WGBH in Boston came up with the trademark Descriptive Video Service, a catchy name if ever there was one. As it turns out, too catchy…


People started calling this whole idea Descriptive Video, and it happened just around the time (the mid-1990’s) when the regulators were starting to consider making it mandatory, just like they had with Closed Captioning for the hearing-impaired about a decade earlier.


There are two main problems with the phrase Descriptive Video, however. First, it is part of the brainchild and trademark of the Media Access Group, so it can get confusing. If I had a dollar for every time the phone has rung and the voice on the other end asked if I was Descriptive Video Service, I wouldn’t need to worry about my children’s college fund.


More importantly, however, if we’re talking about a process that makes TV and movies accessible to the vision-impaired, Descriptive Video is quite simply incorrect. If I want to know how to repair my watch, and someone with the same watch has put up a video on YouTube showing how they repaired it, that is a descriptive video on watch repair.


This is what the Canadian Broadcast Committee on Video Description realised during our meetings back in the early 2000’s. And so it was that, as a consequence of those meetings, in Canada the process became known as Described Video… because that is what it is, a video, described!


Unfortunately, that has left us all, providers, producers, networks, regulators and most notably consumers, with four separate terms which all refer to the same thing, but with subtle difference in meaning. This has led to confusion, which is especially corrosive in the framework of the legislative efforts to make TV and movies available and accessible to the blind and vision-impaired community.


Will this confusion ever end? Perhaps. More and more, the industry is referring to the process simply as DV (perhaps because CC is now universally accepted as a stand-in for Closed Captioning). As more network executives and producers start to think about this, the hope is that they’ll just assume that anything that will be thrown up on the screens should simply be “CC’d and DV’d”, resulting in a more accessible and inclusive world for all.