U.S. law could mean boom for Canuck described video providers

Changes afoot in the Canadian screen industry also auger well for domestic business.

Canadian companies that provide described video services to blind and vision-impaired viewers may soon find their services in higher demand courtesy of a landmark piece of legislation in the U.S.

The so-called Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which was signed into law Oct. 8, 2010, came into effect last week, ending a decade-long legal delay that prevented the services from being mandated by the FCC.

The legislation requires that the top national networks, including ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox air at least four hours of primetime or children’s programming with described video – a secondary audio track that plays between pauses in dialogue to provide context and details to the blind and vision impaired – per week.

It also applies to the four major networks’ affiliates in the top 25 markets, the top-rated five cable networks, including Nickelodeon, TBS, TNT, USA and the Disney Channel, and all cable and satellite systems with at least 50,000 subscribers.

For Canadian companies in the described video services industry, such as Vancouver-based Described Video Works (DVW), this could open up a whole new market, especially if the FCC sticks to its goal of increasing described video coverage to allow full accessibility by 2020.

Diane Johnson

“We’re growing our company,” Diane Johnson, CEO and president of DVW tells Playback Daily.

“We’re hiring more writers and voiceover people,” she adds.

Before the mandate was enforced, DVW, which has provided described video for shows like Arctic Air, Flashpoint and The Listener, and live events, such as the Junos, had already expanded into the U.S. market, opening up shop in L.A. and making deals with the major networks and American film prodco, Open Road to provide described video for all of its movies.

Despite the seeming promise of a ripe new market, John Hauber, founder of Toronto-based John Hauber Productions, is only cautiously optimistic.

“There’s going to be a greater demand, but by the same token, there are already more companies doing DV in the U.S. than there are in Canada, or at least more of the big ones,” he tells Playback.

He added, however, that he has been receiving an increased number of calls from American networks, producers and editing houses, and that he also plans to expand his business, though mostly in response to an equally high demand from Canadian clients, who have been steadily committed to increasing their described video coverage since the CRTC mandated it in 2001.

Indeed, as of 2009, the CRTC expanded the described video mandate to include all conventional broadcasters and a greater number of specialty and pay TV broadcasters.

Broadcasters were also encouraged to make described video programming available online.

According to Johnson, described video services are set to expand even further, as Cineplex is set to add theatres with described video in 130 of its key outlets, and Quebec is also getting on board.

“As of Sept. 1 [Quebec-based broadcasters have] been mandated to do described video as well, which previously they didn’t have to do,” she says.

“Astral, Quebecor and Canal, [will] have to do four hours per week,” she adds.

For Harold Wesley, senior director of on-air operations at Bell Media, the clearest winners will be Canadian broadcasters and consumers.

“It will benefit some broadcasters here, in the respect that, if a show is DVed in the U.S., we’ll do everything in our power to get a copy of that,” he tells Playback.

He adds that CTV has acquired and has already been airing described video episodes of Law & Order for about four years.

In sum, blind and vision-impaired Canadians can expect an influx of Canadian and American content with described video.

Before this happens, however, Hauber says American producers will have to get up to speed with how described video works.