Audio description on FreeviewHD

One of the less considered aspects of the Freeview HD surround sound situation is that the audio system has been designed the way it has, and decisions taken, so that Audio Description can be provided on the HD channels.

For the uninitiated, that’s the descriptions like “The Doctor takes his sonic screwdriver and uses it to open the padlock on the gate” that allow those with visual difficulties to follow what’s happening, even when there’s no dialogue to help them.

It’s a great service, and in my view well worth doing. You can find out more about it at the RNIB, and you might consider that it’s well worth helping them to campaign for more than a mere 10% of programmes on PSB channels to be described in the UK (see the current schedule here) – I was shocked when I realised how low that figure is.

Nevertheless, I fear that Audio Description may become unnecessarily entangled in the various moans and grumbles over Freeview HD’s surround sound problems. Why, some will – and have in various forums – ask, has surround sound been compromised in order to provide a service to people who won’t really benefit from an HD picture. Can’t they watch on SD, and let us have Dolby Digital Plus surround on Freeview HD?

On the face it, a reasonable enough idea, but to anyone who thinks this is a good suggestion to put forward, I say this: don’t forget that people who rely on Audio Description are people with friends, and families too. They don’t exist in a little bubble, having no contact with anyone else.

Audio Description on HD channels means a lot more than just providing a description to a few people with sight problems. It means allowing them to watch a programme with their friends and family, and for them all to watch in HD.

It means that they can enjoy programmes together – and not have to watch in SD instead, in another room, or at a different time, while everyone else is enjoying the HD version.

It is about fairness for its users, enabling them to participate more fully in one of the most common activities we do – watching TV. And I don’t think that should be sacrified.

So, by all means complain about surround sound problems on Freeview HD, and make a fuss to whomever you want. But please remember that Audio Description is not the problem, and don’t suggest taking it away it is part of a solution.

The real issue about surround sound is the lack of a mandatory transcoder, to convert the audio formats used on Freeview into formats the majority of home surround systems will understand.

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