“Challenge” – How to make TV more inclusive

Von Benedikt Frank

With the new TV program "Challenge", the Working Group on Disability and Media (abm) demonstrates how inclusion can work on television. Thanks to their great commitment and innovative technology, abm is doing pioneering work and has created Germany's first fully inclusive TV show.

If you want to watch “Challenge” on broadcast TV, you have to stay up late or get up early as the program runs at 2 a.m. on the channel Kabel Eins and at 7:30 am on SAT.1 GOLD. Far away from prime-time, we can see not only an extraordinary format, but also a digital innovation which could hold interest for the future. "We see ourselves as influencers for inclusion," states abm’s Managing Director Herrmann Hoebel as he describes the work of his team.

Inclusion can generally be understood as integration or participation. In this case it is about people with disabilities getting access to television programs. The makers of the TV program "Challenge" had already adopted this idea during production. People with and without disabilities collaborate in front of and behind the camera and together they create approximately 30-minute long documentaries. The latest episodes deal with an inclusive school class or the way the Danish government is making tourist attractions accessible to people with disabilities. Those who do not want to stay up late or get up early can watch the programs on abm's Vimeo channel.

Breaking down barriers with digital technology

It is very important to abm to make existing TV programs available for people with disabilities. It is all about accessibility. Just as stairs can be an insurmountable hurdle for wheelchair users, it is almost impossible for people with hearing impairment to watch their favorite programs without subtitles or sign language interpreters. Blind and visually impaired people require an audio description of the visual events on the screen. But as the example of "Challenge" shows, inclusion can even go further – via another sound channel you can, for example, listen to the program in easy language. This language consists of – among other things – short sentences, simplified grammar, and additional explanations. This not only helps people with learning difficulties to understand the programs better but is also interesting for anyone who is learning German as a foreign language.

"Television for everyone" is the name of the project which forms the technical foundation for these support systems, with "Challenge" being the first fully inclusive program on German television. Although subtitles are being used more and more often on TV, audio description, sign language, and easy language are still relatively rare. Currently there is no program apart from "Challenge" that offers all four forms of support. According to the broadcasting company ARD, 98 percent of their programming is subtitled. The news program Tagesschau, for example, is translated into sign language on the TV channel phoenix. At ProSieben, 41 percent of programs are subtitled and high-coverage formats such as the finale of "Germany's Next Top Model" and the first season of "The Masked Singer" had live audio descriptions. There is still room for improvement among private and public broadcasters.

TV program "Challenge", Photo: abm

More inclusion with HbbTV, Apps, and Augmented Reality

Subtitles, sign language, audio descriptions, and easy language all present infrastructural challenges. Audio descriptions and easy language require an additional audio channel, and sign language can only run via its own video signal, which means – as in the case of the news program Tagesschau – that it has to be broadcast by a second channel. Thanks to smart TVs with HbbTV standards, it is now possible to make all this available online without having to occupy additional frequencies. The accessibility options can also be used synchronously via secondary devices. Thus, a person with visual impairment can listen to the audio description via his or her own smartphone and they can then watch TV with others who would be disturbed by the description of the scenes. A particularly innovative feature is the possibility of using augmented reality glasses to add sign language interpreters to the screen. Although these glasses are not yet well established, it is likely that the devices will become more affordable in the future as inclusion technology becomes more available, tested, and used more frequently.

“Challenge" and abm piqued the industry’s interest – ProSiebenSat.1, the Bavarian Regulatory Authority for Commercial Broadcasting (BLM), Bayerische Medien Technik (bmt), and the Research Institute of the Public Broadcasters (Institut für Rundfunktechnik – IRT) are now collaborating with them as partners. At the HbbTV Festival in Athens the idea won the main prize and at MEDIENTAGE MÜNCHEN it was nominated several times. "We want to make the technology usable for other formats," states ProSiebenSat.1’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Annette Kümmel, who closely followed the project. She now wants to gain experience with "Challenge" in order to make prime-time programs more inclusive in the future.

Inclusive television, however, is a big production effort. The Managing Director of abm, Herrmann Hoebel, calls it a logistical challenge: "Handing over the film at the last minute is no longer possible.” His small team needs two and a half weeks to work with the four inclusive services. For private television especially, costs are a key factor. "It is definitely not too expensive," states Hoebel. The additional costs run between 7,000 and 10,000 euros for half an hour. "This is not a huge sum for TV”, states abm‘s Managing Director, who would like to share the experience and technology of "Challenge" with other TV professionals.

Program information: The next episode of "Challenge" will be broadcast on June 29th on Kabel Eins and on July 4th on SAT1. GOLD.