EOY at 30: How Diane Johnson flipped the script on the entertainment industry

Before Netflix and Prime Video, entertainment executive Diane Johnson founded Descriptive Video Works. Now most streamers you can name use the service

Diane Johnson wanted to be in broadcasting, and she wanted to make a difference. Stop us if you’ve heard that one before. But unlike, say, Reese Witherspoon’s ambitious newscaster character in The Morning Show—who wants to change the world from a spot in the anchor’s seat—Johnson had worked mostly behind the scenes in marketing through stints with companies like CFOX Radio, Global and Disney.

In 2003, she had been out of the industry for a couple of years, but she was feeling the itch to go back. “What was I going to do?” she recalls. “Knock on the door of CTV and say, ‘Hi! How would you like me? I’m going to make a difference!’” Around that time, a friend called her to say that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had just mandated described video (a narrated description of a program’s main visual elements for blind or vision-impaired watchers).

“She said I should look into it, so I thought, well, if the broadcasters are going to do it in-house, there’s no job for me here,” Johnson says. She had connections from her time in the industry, so she went to the vice-president of CTV. “He looked at me and said, ‘Diane, if you start this company, we’ll be your first client.’”

First, she did some research. “I had to talk to people who were blind and vision-impaired and see if it was something that they cared about,” she says. “If they said, ‘No, I don’t want it,’ I wouldn’t have started it. I got to know some amazing people in the blind and vision-impaired community, fabulous people. I still work with Blind Beginnings, a [New Westminster-based] charity for kids that are blind and their parents.”

These days, the Vancouver-based company produces described video in 18 different languages and employs 140 writers, 75 narrators and 12 project managers across six countries. Clients include NBC Universal, Paramount, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, Disney and Amazon. The company was the global pioneer for live described video and is starting to expand into video games with its work on The Last of Us and Amazing Spiderman 2.

Johnson, who was named the 2011 Social Entrepreneur of the Year by EY, sold Descriptive Video Works in 2019 to Irish firm Keywords Studios. She still serves on the company’s advisory board but notes that the rest of the board mostly comprises an international group of people who are blind or vision-impaired.

“I had been approached by other companies to sell, and it never felt like the right fit,” Johnson says. “The most important thing was that whoever was going to buy it had to get our culture and understand that the people that work there are really passionate about what they do—it’s not just a job to them; they’re really committed to making a difference. Oftentimes, you get a company that’s run by bean counters and their main thing is the bottom line.”

The sale came shortly after Johnson had managed to get Netflix as a client after some four years of trying. She wasn’t a motivated seller. But she ended up being convinced. “They said, ‘We’d like you to meet with some of the owners of companies we acquired so you can see how we work with them,’” Johnson says. “They flew me to Paris and London to meet with them. The owners were still working for the companies. I recognized that it was a highly respected company that treated people well.”

As for the Entrepreneur of the Year honours that she won in 2011, Johnson remembers the experience well. “It made a huge difference for me—I hadn’t really been around other entrepreneurs. And then they asked me to judge the next year,” says Johnson. “I learned so much about the way to think in business, the risk-taking. In business, you have to be a risk-taker. You’re not going to grow if you don’t go beyond your comfort zone sometimes.”

One of those risks? Telling Netflix that they could deliver on Spanish language programming. “They asked if we could do Spanish, so I said, ‘Oh yeah, we can do Spanish.’ I didn’t say we do Spanish,” she recalls with a laugh. “I started hiring writers and narrators that were Spanish, but I knew nothing about it. One day I felt like hiding under my desk. But we did Narcos and other Spanish work for them and they were so happy with what we did. I would never lie or mislead them. But if someone says, ‘Can you do this?’ Sure, we can do that!”

In the end, no one can say she didn’t make a difference. “It’s not always easy,” Johnson says. “I look at it now and how long it took to get Netflix and how much work we’re doing for them. There’s something about hanging in there—if and only if you believe in your heart it’s the right thing to do.”