Sky TVNZ deal makes digital TV for blind possible

TVNZ's decision to use the Sky platform for its digital service has brought blind and partially sighted people back into the fray, attempting to persuade government to support and finance a "voice describing" service for television programmes.

TVNZ’s decision to use the Sky platform for its digital service has brought blind and partially sighted people back into the fray, attempting to persuade government to support and finance a “voice describing” service for television programmes.

Digital TV is capable of carrying additional channels within the signal’s bandwidth to provide an alternative audio feed, something not possible with analogue technology. Sky already uses this capability in broadcasting Warriors rugby league games, with an optional Maori commentary instead of the English one.

Many disabled people see themselves as under the same socially and politically imposed discrimination as racial minorities, on account of services being structured for the able-bodied majority.

The blind community in the early 90s persuaded NZ On Air to conduct feasibility studies of the voice-over concept, but eventually it was decided that the technology of the time was not up to the task.

Broadcasting minister Marion Hobbs says the broadcasting charter talks of an obligation to meet the needs of “diverse communities”.

By putting a voice track describing the action on to the extra bandwidth, the service would make it easier for blind people to follow a programme where there is little dialogue or commentary.

As part of a presentation to the minister this week, representatives of NZ on Air, the Human Rights Commission and other interested parties, the Association of Blind Citizens (ABC, formerly the NZ Association of the Blind and Partially Blind) showed the largely silent final fight scene between husband, wife and lover from the movie “Fatal Attraction”. The clip was first shown in the ordinary way, them with voiced commentary “David pushes Alex’s face below the surface of the water in the bathtub …”

Source material for the voice-over probably already existed in the written screenplay, says a NZ on Air representative, though he and ABC's Clive Lansink acknowledge intellectual property rights would have to be negotiated.

The analogy was made several times with TV’s captioning service for deaf viewers, now routinely provided in a number of countries, including New Zealand. References were also made to the deaf community's recent success in persuading government to support a relay system for telephone calls as a parallel for government action.

An earlier presentation was devoted to the promotion of voice-aided ATMs, which talk a blind user through the screens of information and the necessary card insertions and key-presses, by way of an audio socket on the machine, into which the user plugs private earphones.

Representatives of ANZ, National and WestpacTrust banks attended, and expressed some support for the idea. The BNZ, however, has apparently decided to follow its own course in providing for the needs of blind ATM users, and did not attend.

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