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Descriptive Video Service

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The Descriptive Video Service (DVS) is a major United States producer of video description, which makes visual media, such as television programs, feature films, and home videos, more accessible to people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired. DVS often is used to describe the product itself.



In 1985, TV station WGBH, the Boston, Massachusetts, member of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), began investigating uses for the new technology of stereophonic television broadcasting, particularly multichannel television sound (MTS), which allowed for a third audio channel, called the Secondary Audio Program (SAP). With a history of developing closed captioning of programs for hearing-impaired viewers, WGBH considered the viability of using the new audio channel for narrated descriptions of key visual elements, much like those being done for live theatre in Washington, D.C., by Margaret Pfanstiehl, who had been experimenting with television description as part of her Washington Ear radio reading service. After reviewing and conducting various studies, which found that blind and visually impaired people were consuming more television than ever but finding the activity problematic (often relying on sighted family and friends to describe for them), WGBH consulted more closely with Pfanstiehl and her husband, Cody, and then conducted its first tests of DVS in Boston in 1986. These tests (broadcasting to local groups of people of various ages and visual impairments) and further study were successful enough to merit a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to complete plans to establish the DVS organization permanently in 1988. After national testing, more feedback, more development of description technique, and additional grants, DVS became a regular feature of selected PBS programming in 1990.[1] Later, DVS became an available feature in some films and home videos, including DVDs.


DVS describers watch a program and write a script describing visual elements which are important in understanding what is occurring at the time and the plot as a whole. For example, in the opening credit sequence of the children's series Arthur on PBS, the description has been performed as follows:

"Arthur is an 8-year-old aardvark. He wears round glasses with thick frames over his big eyes. He has two round ears on top of his oval-shaped head. He wears red sneakers and blue jeans, with a yellow sweater over a white shirt."[2]

The length of descriptions and their placement by a producer into the program are largely dictated by what can fit in natural pauses in dialogue. (Other producers of description may have other priorities, such as synchronization with the timing of a described element's appearance, which differ from DVS's priority for detail.)[3] Once recorded, placed and mixed with a copy of the original soundtrack, the DVS track is then "laid back" to the master tape on a separate audio track (for broadcast on the SAP) or to its own DVS master (for home video). For feature films, the descriptions are not mixed with the soundtrack, but kept separate as part of a Digital Theater System (DTS) soundtrack.[4]

FCC Involvement

When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started establishing various requirements for broadcasters in larger markets to improve their accessibility to audiences with hearing and vision impairments[1], DVS branched out to non-PBS programming, and soon description could be heard on the SAP for shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Simpsons. However, a federal court ruled in 2002 that the Federal Communications Commission had exceeded its jurisdiction by requiring broadcasters in the top 25 markets to carry video description. Since that time, the amount of new DVS television programming in the United States has declined, as has access to information regarding upcoming described programming, and as broadcasters like ABC and Fox have instead decided to devote their SAP channels to Spanish language dubbing tracks of their shows rather than DVS.[2] Description by DVS and other producers is still available on television (the greatest percentage of DVS programming is still on PBS).[5] WGBH's Media Access Group continues supporting description of feature films (known as DVS Theatrical)[6] and DVS home videos/DVDs are available from WGBH as well as other vendors and libraries.[7]




  1. Cronin, Barry J. Ph.D. and Robertson King, Sharon, MA. "The Development of the Descriptive Video Service", Report for the National Center to Improve Practice. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  2. "The ABC's of DVS", WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  3. "Our Inclusive Approach", AudioVision. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  4. DVS FAQ, WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  5. "Media Access Guide Volume 3", WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  6. "ACB Statement on Video Description" American Council for the Blind Legislative Seminar 2006, February 1, 2006. Retrieved from Audio Description International on July 30, 2007.
  7. List of PBS series with DVS, August 2007, WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  8. Homepage, MoPix. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.
  9. "DVS Home Video" WGBH - Media Access Group. Retrieved on July 30, 2007.

External links