A Brief History of Audio Description in the U.S.

1974

  • Gregory Frazier, while a graduate student at San Francisco State University (and later Professor), while working on his broadcasting master’s thesis in “television for the blind,” develops underlying audio description concepts. (Frazier’s approach followed “scripted” audio description.)
1981
  • Margaret (d. 2009) and Cody Pfanstiehl (d. 2007) of the Metropolitan Washington Ear collaborate with Arena Stage in Washington, DC to create and develop an audio description program for live theatre performances. The service premieres with the theatre’s production of “Major Barbara.” (The Pfanstiehl’s training followed the extemporaneous approach while observing live action.)

1982*

  • The Metropolitan Washington Ear works with the PBS producers of the “American Playhouse” television broadcast to simulcast audio description on radio reading services.

1986

  • The Metropolitan Washington Ear creates the first audio description cassette tours of museums or exhibits for two national monuments managed by the National Park Service: The Statue of Liberty and Castle Clinton (NY).

1987

  • Professors Gregory Frazier (d. 1996) and August Coppola (d. 2009) founded the AudioVision Institute at San Francisco State University. Simultaneous descriptions for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 move, “Tucker,” was one of their first projects.

1987-1988

  • The Metropolitan Washington Ear works with the WGBH Educational Foundation, Public Television Playhouse, Inc., and the Public Broadcasting Service in a year-long nationally broadcast test of what would become Descriptive Video Services (1990, see below). For the first time, synchronized, pre-recorded audio description was broadcast via satellite on the Second Audio Program (SAP channel) for the season’s 26 “American Playhouse” productions.

1988

  • James Stovall of Tulsa, OK, produces audio description of classic TV shows and movies for home videos.

1989

  • James Stovall founds the Narrative Television Network to offer description for movies on cable television.

1990

  • WGBH Educational Foundation launches Descriptive Video Services (DVS®), a subsidiary to provide audio description for television viewers.
  • The Metropolitan Washington Ear creates the first audio description soundtracks for IMAX and OMNIMAX films as well as National Park Service films and videos.
  • The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awards special Emmys to four organizations that brought audio description to television: AudioVision Institute (Gregory Frazier), Metropolitan Washington Ear (Margaret Pfanstiehl), Narrative Television Network (James Stovall), and PBS/WGBH (Barry Cronin and Laurie Everett).

1991

  • Gregory Frazier establishes AudioVision, Inc. to offer description services in the San Francisco Bay Area.

1992

  • WGBH begins its Motion Picture (MoPix) Access project, which leads to providing audio description for first-run films in selected theatres nationwide.

1994

  • The Los Angeles Radio Reading Service provides the first live network television description with Tournament of Roses Parade.
  • The Metropolitan Washington Ear describes the first opera performance, “Madama Butterfly,” for the Washington Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
  • At an Association for Theater and Accessibility pre-conference meeting, Rod Lathim gathers audio describers from across the U.S. who commit to a follow-up conference the next year.

1995

  • Audio Description International (ADI) has its first meeting hosted by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. ADI incorporates in Washington, DC in 1998.

1998

  • Congress amends the Rehabilitation Act by adding Section 508 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Beginning in June 2001, all film, video, multimedia, and information technology produced or procured by Federal agencies must include audio description.

1999

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announces its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for phased-in video description for television.

2000

  • The FCC implements rules requiring major broadcast networks and cable companies in the top 25 television markets to provide 50 hours of described programming per quarter effective April 2002.

2001

  • Audio Description Solutions is founded by William V. Patterson.

2002

  • The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts coordinates and hosts the second national meeting of Audio Description International (ADI).
  • The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reverses the FCC ruling requiring Audio Description for television finding that the FCC had acted beyond the scope of its authority in adopting those rules.

2003

  • Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) introduces a bill to update the FCC’s authority to adopt audio and video description rules. The bill does not pass.

2005

  • Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduces a bill to update the FCC’s authority to adopt audio and video description rules. The bill does not pass.

2006

  • A group of audio describers meet at the annual Leadership and Exchange in Arts and Disability conference and form the Audio Description Coalition (ADC).

  • California Audio Describers Alliance creates and adopts “California Standards for Audio Description” based on the approaches of both Gregory Frazier and the Pfanstiehls.
  • California Audio Describers Alliance shares their Audio Description Standards with ADC towards the creation of national standards.

2007

  • Formation of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), to advocate for legislative and regulatory safeguards that will ensure full Communication Access and Video Programming Access, including video description. Audio Description Coalition is one of more than 200 national, regional, state, and community-based disability organizations, which comprise COAT’s membership.

2008

  • Described and Captioned Media Program, working with the American Foundation for the Blind, publishes its Description Key, guidelines for the description of educational media.

2009

  • American Council of the Blind launches its Audio Description Project to offer training, establish standards, encourage growth, disseminate information, and encourage studies of audio description.

2010

  • President Obama signs the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act, which, among other accessibility initiatives, mandates, after one year, 4 hours per week of video description on the top 4 broadcast networks and top 5 cable channels in the top 25 most populated markets. The law prescribes incremental expansion of video description over a period of years to achieve 100 percent nationwide coverage. 

2015

  • Implementation of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (adopted 3/6/15) for video description. 

*mid-1980’s

  • Audio Description crosses the Atlantic Ocean where the first described performances are believed to take place in a small theatre in Averham, Nottinghamshire. 

This history, courtesy of founding members of the Audio Description Coalition, represents milestones in the creation of audio description, its development beyond its use in live theatre, and laws that require audio description.