Comcast , NBC Getting Rewired for Accessibility

COMCAST — Live Olympic Games Audio Description

Title: Coming to you Live. Comcast, NBC getting rewired for accessibility. Image: TV screens showing Olympic events and accessibility options.

In addition to its vast array of video, Internet and phone services, Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal, which includes Spanish-and English-language broadcast networks, 17 cable networks, a motion picture company and far more. The communication giant’s Symphony marketing initiative promotes such programming as the Olympics and The Wiz Live! ABILITY’s Chet Cooper, along with audio descriptor Michelle Spitz, caught up with Comcast’s Tom Wlodkowski to talk shop.

Chet Cooper: Tom, the last time we interviewed you, Comcast was moving forward with different accessibility components and features. Tell us about the latest innovations, including the live descriptive narrative.

Tom Wlodkowski: First and foremost, we’re continuing our accessibility efforts, not only with X1, but across the web and mobile landscape with a cultural approach to development. We’ve starting to think more about home automation and seeking like-minded partners we can work with in the accessibility space.

The focus of some of our research is to understand where the value-added would be in home automation, and where gaps exist in serving people with disabilities. Voice is important to people with physical disabilities, so is being able to have true conversation in your home environment.

Cooper: What about accessibility for older adults?

Wlodkowski: We’ve been doing a lot of work in that space, trying to understand what’s next, starting to take a look at the intersection of aging in place and the needs of older adults as it relates to accessibility. And we’re always looking at accessibility for people with disabilities in general.

We made our first foray into live description with The Wiz Live!, which was a Broadway musical that aired on NBC in December of 2015. That was the first live, primetime entertainment in the US to air with video description. And of course we were back at it again this year by tackling the first US sports event to air with video description. We’re trying to leverage the collaboration and strong working relationship to explore where the opportunities lie to advance accessibility. That’s a big part of our purpose.

Cooper: I asked Michele Spitz to join us because she’s one of the key players in the description-narrative space. She does it both as a business and as a philanthropist, donating a lot of her time and energy to make things as accessible as possible through her talents.

Wlodkowski: Great.

Cooper: Backtracking a minute here. The whole area of smart homes, how to best create an environment that’s good for people with disabilities and good for people who are aging in place, is very interesting. Many years ago, we partnered with Hewlett-Packard (HP) to create a smart home for a young man who had a spinal-cord injury and very little mobility. A power chair user, we got the home set up so he could navigate a lot of different things by voice command. This pre-dated most of the voice-command products currently on the market, so we had to come up with creative solutions tailored to him.

Some of these things are happening in a new way today, which is a great foundation for you guys to build upon.

Wlodkowski: It’s about bringing in mass-market products and then trying to add innovation. Along those lines, we’re working on a partnership that will be announced in the coming months. We haven’t done the product-development piece of it yet, so I don’t know quite what that will look like, but it’s fair to say smarthome technology is something we’re keenly interested in helping to move forward.

Cooper: Tell us about your role in the 2016 Olympics and any of the challenges Comcast had over the span of the games.

Wlodkowski: We participated as a result of our Comcast Symphony program, which looks for synergies across both sides of our company, whether it be the Comcast cable side, the NBCUniversal side or other business lines we have. We believe accessibility is an important piece of our strategy, and we’re committed to it. As a result, we were able to get NBC interested in offering description live on the Olympics. For two weeks we had two describers, Norma Jean Wick and Jim Van Horne, in a studio at our NBC Sports Group facility in Stamford, CT. They described the four-hour, primetime show, which was broadcast nationwide on all NBC affiliates’ Second Auditory Program (SAP) channel, where it was available as well as through our platforms on the cable side.

We also made the opening and closing ceremonies available with descriptions on demand for Xfinity customers, in addition to the rest of the programming. The primetime show aired live and then was available on demand. In addition to the description, NBC did an unprecedented amount of closed captioning for the event online and everywhere else.

The feedback we’ve gotten on the description has been really positive. People are feeling, for the first time, that they understood some of the gymnastics routines. One person wrote that they didn’t realize gymnasts used the whole floor for some of their routines. And in the diving competition, they didn’t understand what some of the diving moves were, so they were described. I personally was watching the description of beach volleyball, where they said how they pounded the sand carried through that they were either really excited or really frustrated with a play. The audience could get a sense of that visual, which wouldn’t come through in normal play-by-play commentary.

Michele Spitz: I know Diane Johnson and I know Descriptive Video Works. This was something they were so excited about doing. What’s interesting is the blind or low-vision community I’m associated with was so excited to have this as an option. I did know a number of them were not aware of it, and I also wondered during this time frame how they were made aware. What was the platform through which it was announced?

Wlodkowski: There was an Associated Press (AP) story on it. We did book through community organizations like the American Council of the Blind. We did community outreach. Because it was our first time, I think we were a little bit nervous about how it would go, and what the reaction would be. You will probably see us even more vocal about it going forward. That said, I’m glad we led in this space, but we need others to do it too, so that there’s more of an investment made by the description community.

The bottom of a TV screen shows image with Microphone symbol and message"How is the the USA doing?" while swimmers compete doing the breast stroke above.

It’s still in the early stages, and this Olympics gave us the opportunity to talk about our X1 set-top box and our platforms, and our talking guide that enabled people who are blind to navigate and watch the prime-time show on demand if they missed it the night before. ...To read the full article, login or become a member --- it's free!

Read more articles from the Jon Cryer Issue.