Unlocking accessible programming

Unlocking accessible programming

August 14, 2023

In production

Writing for DQ, OUTtv chief operating officer Philip Webb reveals how research on accessibility for audiences translated into the making of the US-based streamer’s comedy-drama Womb Envy.

Created by Toronto Drag Artist Champagna and produced by Border2Border Entertainment for OUTtv and AMI-tv, Womb Envy uses innovative techniques to ensure it is accessible to blind and partially sighted viewers.

Integrated described video (IDV) aims to make one version of the project that is accessible for all audiences, which can be viewed with closed-caption subtitling for deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers.

Philip Webb

Back in January 2020, we met with Accessible Media Inc (AMI) at a conference in Ottawa and were immediately keen to work together on a project that serves the underrepresented audiences that are so ingrained in both of our companies’ values and remits.

AMI focuses on entertaining, informing and empowering Canadians who are blind or partially sighted, while at OUTtv, as the world’s leading LGBTQ+ television and streaming platform, we are dedicated to telling stories by and for the community as a leading provider of queer content. Our aim was to create a piece of entertaining, accessible and diverse programming our audiences will love, inspired by the Being Seen report, created by the Black Screen Office, which provided unparalleled guidance to help us create and assess more authentic and inclusive screen content.

At the very early stages of this discussion, we brought on board Border2Border Entertainment. We have worked with CEO Charlie David and his team for many years and knew they would be equally as passionate and driven as we were about the project. Charlie had been working on the concept of Womb Envy for a while, and when pitching the series to us and AMI, it became abundantly clear this scripted comedy series would be a great vehicle for what we wanted to achieve.

Womb Envy follows Max (Daniel Fernandes), nearly 30 years old, who finds himself wanting more than the tired beat of the Toronto gay dance floor and needing a purpose in his life other than vodka and a deteriorating septum. Meanwhile, Maggie (Storm Steenson) is pregnant and desperate to escape the clutches of her religious zealot mother, Dorothy (Helen Holtham).

Showing up at Max’s door one day after years of separation, Maggie convinces Max to pretend to be her baby daddy, since he was the only man her mother ever approved of. They create rules to ensure the success of their half-baked idea, which causes Max’s fragile queer ego to splinter and create a drag queen apparition — The Divine (Champagna) — who constantly fights against this new assimilation to heteronormativity. Internalising the chaos in his life, Max develops a rare condition known as couvade syndrome, bizarrely displaying pregnancy symptoms that become increasingly difficult to hide.

Womb Envy stars Daniel Fernandes as Max, who develops Couvade syndrome

From the inception of the project, we knew that together with AMI as experts in the field, we wanted to utilise IDV throughout the series. Em Williams and the AMI team describe IDV as a method of producing video content for blind and partially sighted audiences from the ground up, whereby the identification of key visual elements is incorporated into the pre-production, production and post-production phases, eliminating the need for traditional described video after the programme has been packaged. This can be done through the script and language as well as through the choice of background sounds to provide additional context.

One of the initial concerns when using IDV is that it needs a lot of exposition. We contemplated how best to do this for a scripted comedy series, in a way that would be comprehensive for blind and partially sighted audiences but not distracting for people unused to described video.

Charlie brought together a writers room of roughly 10 people, led by screenwriter Mark Keller, offering different perspectives in addition to four or five partially sighted or blind individuals using e-readers to review the scripts, offering us notes at every stage of the writing process. We went through several rounds of this, so when we were ready for pre-production, we would be as prepared as possible to ensure no major clarity issues further down the line and to eliminate the need to add described video to the finished product.

Champagna as The Divine

I found the script meetings fascinating. I don’t attend them for all our projects, but I was honoured to be included in each one for this show and to witness the process first-hand and contribute where I could.

The framework of the series was important in facilitating a seamless IDV approach, and the ethereal character of The Divine allows us to incorporate a narrator element that adds an avenue for organic exposition. In particular, Charlie used this element when facing the challenge of time travel in the series. In one episode, we are jumping back 10 years, jumping forwards and then back again.

We take for granted in a lot of programming that audiences will understand the shift through the use of filters or other visual devices like distorted screen wipes, which are difficult to pick up on if you are viewing as a blind or partially sighted person. We needed to be much more clear but also not too heavy-handed, so we used the narrator character to help provide this exposition in a witty way that fits the tone of the series.

AMI’s key aim with IDV is for the audio of the series to carry itself to be a complete version of the narrative, one not relying on any visual cues. So the team would listen back as if it were a podcast to make sure they knew exactly what was happening but also that it wasn’t too on the nose. We wanted to utilise natural and organic ways of describing the dynamics, settings and visual elements of the show – getting those things across using dialogue and sound and pulling from AMI’s toolbox from their years of experience. This was the first scripted project on which AMI had used IDV, so despite having an abundance of knowledge, it felt like we were discovering the best and new ways to make this work together.

One great example of this is that, when talking about the use of dialogue in the series, Charlie often notes how simple switches can be made for language that carries more information about what is happening, so instead of saying, ‘Hey, put that down,’ you would say, ‘Em, put down the donut.’

Michelle Dudas, the supervising producer, and Em Williams from AMI were extremely helpful in the IDV review, as I and the other creatives often forget how, when watching a series, even if something isn’t said, your mind will fill in the blanks using what you are seeing on screen. This process carried on right up until the end of the project as we continued to fine-tune, sometimes finding a better sound to use in a specific scene that would provide more context or insight into what was happening.

Womb Envy is currently making its way around the festival circuit

One of the challenges with a comedy series is that there is always going to be background comedy – things happening that are secondary to the primary action and add laughs but are not primary dialogue or action. The main thing we learnt from both the Being Seen report and from AMI is that making something accessible shouldn’t diminish it, or come at the cost of key elements of the project. Our approach was to be additive, and also to think carefully about each moment of the show – making adjustments to be inclusive and then also ensuring these hundreds of small tweaks come across as natural for people who don’t necessarily have the same accessibility needs. It’s a very fine balance.

The team wanted to ensure accessibility was woven into everything we were doing, not just through IDV in the show itself. Charlie and the team worked on the logos and the colours used on social media, as well as using CamelCase (capitalising the words in a phrase) for hashtags. He and his team also had a training scheme within the production, through which people with disabilities developed their skills and worked as third assistant directors alongside the first and second ADs, and as production co-ordinators for Womb Envy.

It is definitely a learning process and, with every project that gets made, the techniques and tools are so individual. Womb Envy has had a great reception so far, with our audiences not even noticing that IDV has been incorporated – a real testament to how organic the team has made the series.

As it makes its way around the festival circuit, it has already won a number of awards, and we look forward to introducing the series to new audiences where OUTtv is available internationally. We also look forward to working with AMI and Border2Border on more projects, and hope reports such as the fantastic Being Seen report encourage more producers, broadcasters and platforms to incorporate the learnings and how inclusive programming is not only incredibly important but also achievable across different genres and formats.

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