Q&A with Wendy Youens

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Wednesday, 13 August 2014 09:26am

In our latest Media Access Australia ‘experts in access’ Q&A, we talk to Wendy Youens, CEO of the New Zealand access company Able, which provides captioning and audio description services for television and other media.

How and when did captioning begin in New Zealand, and how is it funded?

Captioning began in NZ back in 1984 on a few programmes every week, funded by the proceeds of the 1981 Telethon. Captioning started to grow in 1991 when captions were launched for TV ONE’S 6pm news bulletin. Since then the captioning service has been funded by the good folk at NZ On Air, New Zealand’s government broadcast funding agency.

How did you first become involved in captioning?

I’ve been involved with captioning for seven and a half years now, and joined the captioning team, then based at TVNZ, fresh out of university. I spent a couple of years producing and editing captions for live and offline television programmes, then moved into management. Working in this industry is a real privilege – it combines all the things I’m passionate about – access, words, media and people.

How many hours of captioning are there currently on New Zealand television, and how are programs chosen to be captioned?

Able provides captioning for over 250 hours of television per week across TV ONE, TV2, TV3 and FOUR. There are also captions available on some pay TV channels – these come from the overseas broadcasters.

Choosing which shows to caption is the lucky job of Able’s administration coordinator and operations manager. Every week they look at schedules from the broadcasters and make decisions on which programmes we’ll caption. We focus on prime-time programming, but also cover a variety of other shows, including local interest and children’s programming. We also love hearing from viewers through Facebook, Twitter or email about which shows they’d like captioned.

There’s currently a lot of debate around the world about the different methods for captioning news programs and other programs that are live or near live. What methods do you use to caption those programs and how do you measure quality?

Able’s goal is to provide viewers with the best quality and the highest quantity captions that we can within our funding. For live programmes, we prep as much content as possible in advance, using content provided by the broadcaster. For segments where no prep material is available, we use speech-recognition software, where the captioner respeaks the audio, generating and broadcasting captions in close to real-time.

We’ve watched overseas developments with this software with interest – it’s definitely an interesting time for captioning technologies, and I think the advances will only make our jobs easier, as long as it’s balanced with quality.

To the great envy of us here in Australia, New Zealand has had a regular audio description service on TV since 2011. How did that come about?

Audio description came about in NZ after many years of lobbying and ground work by Blind Citizens NZ. NZ On Air funded the launch of audio description back in 2011, and TVNZ worked hard to set up the technical infrastructure that was required to create and broadcast extra audio channels.

It would be great to see the AD service available in Australia – it’s been fantastic to hear the positive feedback from NZ’s blind and vision-impaired community about our service, and it would be great for our Aussie neighbours to have the same opportunity.

Were there any technical issues when the AD service was introduced, and if so, how were they resolved?

We did face a few challenges implementing the AD service in NZ. The first was considering whether to use broadcast mix or receiver mix AD. We elected to go with broadcast mix since digital TV was already well established in NZ, and we felt it would be better from the consumer perspective to be able to buy any digital TV or set-top box and have access to AD.

However, broadcast mix AD was not without its challenges – we had issues with AD being too loud or too quiet and with it affecting the volume of the programme audio .We have learnt lots along the way and upgraded some of our equipment, so we’re really happy with the quality of the AD we’re producing now.

Do you get much feedback from viewers about the audio description service?

We do get some feedback about the AD service, and we love to hear from viewers about which programmes they’d like to see audio described.

Why was the decision made to remove captioning and audio description production from TVNZ and create Able?

Last year the production of television captioning and audio description transferred from TVNZ to Able, governed by the Media Access Charitable Trust, a newly formed independent entity. The move was the result of a business decision by TVNZ to cease non-core activity.

It’s been a really positive move for access media in NZ, as Able is a fully independent provider who can work with any broadcaster.

Who does Able provide services to, and what services do you offer?

Able provides a captioning service to TVNZ (TV ONE & TV2) and Mediaworks (TV3 & FOUR), and an audio description service to TVNZ. We also provide captioning for television commercials and other media. Further information is listed on our services page.

How do you recruit captioners and audio describers? Do your staff mostly specialise in one or the other? What would you say are the qualities that make a good captioner, and a good audio describer?

As we’re NZ’s only provider of these services, we provide full training for all of our new recruits. Our staff mostly specialise in captioning or AD, as they’re quite different roles, but there is a bit of crossover for some staff members.

A good captioner will of course have excellent spelling, grammar, general knowledge and typing skills. Often Able captioners have an arts, journalism or communications degree, and we always ask in the interview what their favourite books and TV programmes are – chances are if you love words and TV, captioning will be a great fit for you!

Our audio describers take care of the whole AD process – scripting, voicing and audio mixing, so we look for new recruits with a good mix of skills. Often audio describers will have a background in acting or radio work. One challenge is that audio description is quite a solitary role, working alone in a recording booth most of the day, so we’re also looking for people that are happy with a quiet workplace.

How do you see the future of captioning and audio description in New Zealand? Will we see levels increasing in the next few years?

The future of captioning and AD in NZ is looking very bright, and Able is very excited to be part of it. Already with the establishment of Able, we’ve been able to see the captioning and AD output increase, including the addition of three popular political/current affairs programmes to our weekly schedule. I think levels will continue to increase, but as there is no legislation for captioning or audio description in NZ, it is dependent on the funding increasing or broadcasters chipping in to cover some of the costs.

There has been increased lobbying particularly for captioning, so it will be very interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

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