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Painting audio pictures of Austrian football

Football commentators come in for a lot of criticism, usually because of their inane or inaccurate observations, but in Austria detailed audio descriptions are ensuring that visually impaired fans get to experience all the action, as Kevin Hilton reports.

Football commentators come in for a lot of criticism, usually because of their inane or inaccurate observations, but in Austria detailed audio descriptions are ensuring that visually impaired fans get to experience all the action, as Kevin Hilton reports. The new Austrian Bundesliga (premier league) season is underway and amid the TV coverage – with its special cameras and detailed graphics systems to analyse the more theatrical players – is a dedicated commentary designed to bring the game to blind and partially sighted football aficionados at home and in the stadium. Working with technology consultancy Datamatix Datensysteme, public broadcaster ORF is providing a stereo commentary tailored for handicapped fans alongside its main stereo and 5.1 commentaries. These are available through satellite, cable or digital terrestrial TV (DTT) set-top boxes by selecting the Audio Option; on the internet as streamed audio; or over localised VHF radio transmissions within football grounds. The commentary is very different to that heard on standard TV broadcasts. It is delivered by commentators who have been through speech training and have some experience in working in this way with visually impaired people. By preparing with blind or partially sighted fans the reporters are able to create a full description of the game that conveys the atmosphere as well as the action. ORF says the aim is to “project pictures in the brains of the audience”, which helps them “see with their ears”. This service is sponsored jointly by ORF and the Austrian Football League (OFB). It now covers all live broadcasts of Bundesliga games and on 27th August was extended to provide audio description of the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Spa for the first time. These commentaries date back to the UEFA Euro 2008 football championship, hosted jointly by Austria and Switzerland. Football governing body FIFA provided funding to run four VHF stereo transmitters at the main stadia used for the tournament. OFB later took these over and in October 2009 the international between Austria and Lithuania was the first game to be broadcast with audio description available as an alternative TV audio channel, on the internet and at the stadium in Innsbruck over radio signals. After that the project began in earnest under the name Bundesliga ONEAR. Since then ORF’s Humanitarian Broadcasting department has produced the first ever audio description for a FIFA World Cup. All 64 matches of this summer’s Finals in South Africa offered audio description, with commentators watching TV coverage on monitors at an ORF studio in Vienna. “They commented on the pictures from the screen,” explains Michael Kastelic, chief executive of Datamatix Datensysteme. “This was not as good as if they had been in the stadium but it saved a lot of money. Nevertheless, the feedback about our work at the World Cup was overwhelming.” Due to copyright reasons the service was not available over the internet. Datamatix Datensysteme was founded in 2003 and specialises in low-speed data transmission systems for mobile and portable applications. These use a range of technologies, from local links and nationwide GSM/GPRS connections to global satellite-based telemetry. The company works primarily in industry and commerce, including the oil, gas and traffic management sectors. The move into audio description and sports broadcasting is something of a departure and came about after Datamatix approached UEFA in the run-up to Euro 2008. Kastelic says the work is based on a “personal predilection” and his support for blind fans. Audio description commentators sit in the stands at football grounds, using equipment in flight-cased flyaway packages (pictured). These are based around Lawo Crystal digital consoles, with Sound Devices 302 field mixers as backup. Kastelic says he is considering investing in a small audio OB truck for the future. The commentary is sent from the stadium to ORF OB vehicles, which are equipped with Lawo mc²56 desks. This is then carried to the broadcaster’s master control room in Kueniglberg, which is used exclusively for sport and features a mc²90 console. ORF broadcasts three audio channels in the digital TV data stream: main commentary in both stereo and Dolby 5.1 and audio description, also stereo. Audio for the internet is streamed and delivered using the BARIX Instreamer 100. Datamatix Datensysteme uses 14 of these units, with additional systems at stadia. The MP3 stream is distributed from a Shoutcast internet radio server. Fans going to the matches take their own radios and earpieces or headsets. “We decided this is the best way to do it,” says Kastelic, “because handling and maintenance of rental equipment is very time consuming. This works fine and everybody is happy with the situation.” The commentary itself is far more detailed than that used for standard broadcasts. Kastelic describes it as being like “an old fashioned radio transmission”, with in-depth information on the geography of the field. “We add details like ‘Maradona is wearing a big golden necklace with a cross’ and ‘the cooling spray for pain relief produces a big white cloud”. We also give additional information about the players and the teams.” As with most football commentaries on radio, two commentators provide the audio description, splitting each half of the game between themselves. The service is going down well with its target audience; Kastelic says the reporters are “heroes to the blind fans”. In an otherwise much maligned profession that’s some praise.