Finally! HBO Max premieres audio description
By: Diane Hinkle
Ah, springtime. A time for rebirth, growth, and in the case of HBO Max, a time for finally releasing content with audio description!
Fans have been asking for accessibility and audio description improvements from the provider for years, and in September 2020 an agreement was reached between HBO Max’s parent company, WarnerMedia Direct, LLC; American Council of the Blind (ACB); the Massachusetts-based Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB); and two individuals. (American Council of the Blind).
Finally! Winter - with audio description - is coming! But when, and what, described content will roll out? How easy will it be to access that content when it’s available?
Per the agreement, HBO Max will roll-out audio description on new and existing programming in three phases: 1,500 hours by the end of March 2021; 3,000 hours by the end of March 2022; and 6,000 hours by the end of March 2023. Further, the agreement provides for accessibility improvements to the HBO Max website and all applications across platforms. Audio description began appearing on some programs as early as March 19, but the official release announcement was made on March 26.
So what made the cut for the first phase?
Without insight from the company, fans wondered what would be included in the first 1,500 hours of content. Would it include flagship programs like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Deadwood? What about Zach Snyder’s Justice League (released on the platform March 18 without audio description)?
Initially, it wasn’t easy to tell. Users had to search for programs and open each one to see if the AD option was available. Fortunately, a prominent Audio Description category has since been added to the main menu of the website. Also, the Audio Description Project’s long-time webmaster Fred Brack quickly added titles described in English.
There are almost 200 titles currently available with AD. With content spanning rating classifications and genres, there seems to be something for everyone. As Disability Rights Associates reported “[s]elect programming released in the launch with audio description include His Dark Materials, Genera+ion, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Dunkirk, Euphoria, Love Life, Sesame Street and many more titles. (Disability Rights Advocates, A Non-Profit Corporation). Below are a few titles in each rating classification:
Rating Classification: Young Children (G, PG, Y, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-Y)
- Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020 [2020 Movie; Documentary; rated PG]
- Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel [HBO Original Series; Documentary; rated PG] (Description starts with Season 27)
- Singin' in the Rain [1952 Movie; Comedy; rated G]
- The Middle [TV Series; Comedy; rated PG] (Description starts with Season 4)
- Crazy Rich Asians [2018 Movie; Comedy; rated PG-13]
- Godzilla vs. Kong [2021 Movie; Sci-Fi & Fantasy; rated PG-13]
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters [2019 Movie; Sci-Fi & Fantasy; rated PG-13]
- Wonder Woman [2017 Movie; Sci-Fi & Fantasy; rated PG-13]
- His Dark Materials [2019 HBO Original Series; Drama; rated TV-14]
- 2 Dope Queens [2018 HBO Original Movie; TV Variety; rated TV-MA]
- Big Little Lies [2017 HBO Original Series; Drama; rated TV-MA]
- Chernobyl [2019 HBO Original Series; Drama; rated TV-MA] (Description is missing for Episode 1)
- Lovecraft Country [2020 HBO Original Series; Horror; rated TV-MA]
- Zack Snyder's Justice League [2021 Max Original Movie; Sci-Fi & Fantasy; rated R] (This movie is 4 hours long)
- Zack Snyder's Justice League: Justice Is Gray [2021 Max Original Movie; Sci-Fi & Fantasy; rated R] (Black and White version, 4 hours)
No rollout is without surprises or challenges, and this one is no exception. While we expected this phase to include AD for web browsers, iPhone, and iPad apps, we were pleasantly surprised to find AD functioning on Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, and Android smartphones. There are, of course, still kinks to be worked out.
Avid streamer Joshua Loya shared his frustration in the Facebook group Audio Description Discussion:
I’ve been really enjoying the range of programming available with AD on HBO Max. I can even watch AD content on my Apple TV. The thing is, I have to turn on audio description for each episode of a series, even if I just watched the previous episode with AD. Does anybody have a fix for this? I’d like HBO Max content to default to AD if it is available."
Technical challenges are to be expected, and hopefully, we’ll see a resolution to those soon. A thornier problem is missing AD. We’ve discovered that some episodes of described series are missing the AD (Chernobyl, Boardwalk Empire, Euphoria for example). With HBO Max scrambling to meet the deadline in a little less than six months, it’s understandable that some mistakes were made. Missing episodes of described programs will likely be added soon. Viewers are noticing, however, that some programs they’ve previously enjoyed with AD are available without description, Since AD is added post-production and licensed separately, it doesn’t “travel” with programs. HBO Max will have to provide new AD for any program they’ve already acquired. However, the settlement agreement stipulates that going forward, the company will request any existing versions of acquired assets having AD. This is a major change in the industry and hopefully means we’ll start to see AD “travel” with programs, ensuring a consistent experience for all viewers regardless of platform or service.
We are excited to see what HBO Max rolls out with description next. With 6,000 hours to come by March 2023, there are so many iconic programs in the back catalog we’re ready for! Let us know your thoughts on HBO Max so far and what you’re looking forward to.