Video Description: Must Hear TV?

This week I’m providing information about video description and TV. I certainly remember spending far too many hours sprawled on the couch watching bad TV during my summers off from school. I’m not even going to share what I watched, just trust me, it was “Love Boat” bad. Fortunately, much of it I’d seen so many times before that I didn’t really need any description.

These days, children with vision loss are especially at a disadvantage if they don’t know what happened on the shows that their friends are watching. Like it or not, TV programs inform us, entertain us, and even set cultural behaviors and modes of dress and style. Much of this information is conveyed visually and without description; too often, blind kids are left out.

Well, I don’t know if TV has gotten much better, but if you want to watch a TV show with video description, unfortunately, the news is not very good. Very few programs include description, and getting the description to actually work on your TV is also likely to be painfully difficult. But, fear not, there is something you can do to make this lamentable situation better. And, remember, on June 12, US TV stations are switching to digital from analog, so hopefully you’ve already prepared for the change.

First, what is the situation concerning described TV programs? The bright spot in described TV programming was, and remains, public TV, supported by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which includes video description on a large number of programs. The Media Access Group at WGBH led the way here too, just as it did with describing movies, through its Descriptive Video Service®. The first video described program aired on PBS in 1990. Now, many programs for children—such as Arthur, Barney and Cyberchase—as well as popular series like Nova and Nature are regularly described. Nickelodeon provides description for “Dora the Explorer” and “Go, Diego, Go!”

Among traditional, broadcast commercial networks, CBS and Fox air a few described programs. For example, CBS offerings include crime dramas NCIS, Criminal Minds and CSI, and occasional movies or miniseries. And, if you’re a fan of The Simpsons (Fox), it’s described. And, several movies that air on the Cable channel Turner Classic Movies also include description.

WGBH has established a good site for information about TV programs available with video description. The site is at

For a brief moment back in 2002, things were different and hopes were high for more TV shows with description. Beginning in April 2002, the major networks—ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC (along with major Cable networks such as Nickelodeon, USA, and Lifetime) were required to provide approximately 4 hours each week of described prime-time or children’s programming. But, the requirement was struck down by a federal court just a few months later in November 2002 and eventually description was discontinued on most of the programs that had started to include it.

The lack of described TV programs is not the only challenge. Unfortunately, it’s hard to actually get descriptions to work on your TV. Video description has been provided over a special channel called the Secondary Audio Program (SAP) channel. With the transition to digital TV, the SAP channel will no longer be used. The good news is that digital channels allow for video description to be included with the digital signal. The bad news is that there are lots of barriers that can keep you from getting description. Because video description is not very common for TV programs, it’s fair to say that most networks and local stations don’t know about the special audio channel available for description. And, what’s more, finding the audio channel among the complicated menus on your set-top box or TV controls is often like finding that needle in the haystack.

WGBH has set up a website for digital TV issues at You can find an explanation of video description and digital TV there. The Audio Description International website, a project supported by the American Council of the Blind (ACB), also has information about video description on TV including a fairly pessimistic discussion of digital TV challenges.

So, what can you do about these multiple challenges? First, never underestimate the power of consumer requests. You should contact the networks that carry your favorite shows and ask them to provide video description. If you subscribe to Cable or satellite TV, you should contact your provider to ask how to access video description for programs like those aired on PBS where description is provided.

AFB is also working to increase the amount of TV programs with description and to make it easier to operate television receivers for people with vision loss. We are part of a coalition that is working to pass legislation that would require TV programs to include video description and to ensure that TV receivers would transmit it. The legislation would also require manufacturers of televisions and the set-top boxes to make it possible for someone with vision loss to operate controls and review electronic program guides. The proposed law is called the “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act,” and you can find more information about this on our website. Hopefully, one day described programming will be as common as closed captioning, which is now required for virtually all TV programming.

OK, your turn. Try to check out a PBS program, or one of the other programs made available with description and let us know how it goes.