After months and months of waiting and a whole lot of restless excitement, we’ve finally got a new season of Black Mirror, and a new reason to renew our Netflix subscriptions. That is… unless you happen to be visually impaired.
People go through different rituals when the show they’ve been waiting months to see finally lands. Some will no doubt have welcomed in the fifth season of Black Mirror with a sick call to the boss, while others binged all three episodes as soon as they got home and like normal, everyday masochists, I and many other vision-impaired folk sat down in front of our TVs, expecting to beckon in season five with a familiar sprightly-sounding woman telling us that ‘the red-letter N unfolds into a spectrum of colours’.
Instead, we were to be greeted with the horrifying sound of silence. Because unlike other Netflix Originals, since the release of Daredevil in 2015 and subsequently every season of Black Mirror, the fifth season of Charlie Brooker’s technophobic anthology series did not launch with an audio description narration track.
As I desperately searched through the list of language preferences, trying to find that elusive audio description option I knew must have been in there, the uncomfortable feeling that the historically ultra-accessible streaming platform I’d come to love had actually forgotten about us.
Audio description, which has been around since the 1980s, is an accompanying audio narration track describing what’s happening on-screen in the pauses between dialogue.
Every episode of Black Mirror, up until now, has been beautifully described by Channel 4 and then Netflix. And yes, that includes that legendary pig scene in The National Anthem, which was um… delightfully described.
Without audio description, blind and partially sighted people miss out on crucial information that can only be understood with the help of a narrator literally describing facial expressions, a tense atmosphere or the fictional prime minister having sex with a pig.
If you talk to a visually impaired person, you’ll hear them singing Netflix’s praises from the rooftops. Netflix is the company who’s worked hard at making audio description a mainstream affair, something where many streaming platforms fall flat on their face. But over the past six months, we’ve sadly been relegated to a mere and all-too-common afterthought.
It all started with the initially-missing audio description tracks on the latest season of Lucifer, released in December. This was swiftly followed by the audio description tracks’ absence in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery in January.
The lack of audio description on Black Mirror serves as a harsh reminder that there’s still more to be done when it comes to equal access, something that has been a wider problem in the film and television industry for a long while. It’s an industry that has seemingly always struggled when it comes to the topic of accessibility.
As a vision-impaired person, audio description is more of a privilege than a right, and there’s nowhere more evident of that in effect than the British cinema industry. The majority of the 800-odd mainstream multiplexes are kitted out with all of the equipment needed to beam an audio description narration track to a pair of Bluetooth headphones, yet recent statistics suggest that only roughly 60 per cent of UK cinemas are providing audio described screenings of the latest films.
It’s just a relief when you find one, and when the audio description actually works – heck, it’s like winning the lottery.
Terrestrial catch-up services like the ITV Hub, All 4, Now TV and Sky Go are arguably even worse, with the BBC iPlayer being the only major broadcaster providing audio described content in the native app. It’s something I’ve come to expect from UK cinemas, catch-up services and streaming platforms.
Amazon Prime Video itself only has a tiny number of audio described content, but Netflix? Never Netflix, the streaming service that so far championed equal access to its entire catalogue of original content and reliably provides audio description.
That’s why when I switched on Black Mirror and expected to be glum for the next couple of hours, I was instead glum for all the wrong reasons. All excitement sapped; I was annoyed that the show I’d been unhealthily checking up on on a weekly-basis was now just another one of those shows I couldn’t watch, even If I wanted to, with the streaming service has confirming we will have to wait another three weeks.
As fans of Black Mirror, we’ve waited as patiently as any other fan when actually Netflix might as well have given sighted and visually impaired people two different release dates.
Like an extreme Nosedive-esque Black Mirror episode, vision-impaired people are still struggling to boost their star rating so they can achieve the basic right to watch a TV show at the same time as everyone else. Except it’s not some weird dystopian fiction, it’s our reality.
Black Mirror is available to stream (if you’re sighted) on Netflix now.
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