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.
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.
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.
When we do these things, we’re also trying to use the event, like the Olympics and descriptions, as an opportunity to educate the community. To your point about getting the word out, there are accessible set-top boxes you can get, in our case Xfinity and our X1 platform, that allow you to have independent control over what content you watch. We’re always looking for an opportunity with these events. How can we position both sides of the company in a way to promote all of the different work that lots of people have put in to make accessibility a priority?
Cooper: What about the Paralympics?
Wlodkowski: We didn’t have description there this year, to my knowledge. But NBC did have unprecedented coverage of the Paralympics. That’s definitely something we’ll look to do from a logistics standpoint down the road. We’ve got to find a way to balance both of these events that come right after one another, so we’ll hopefully be able to do that at a future Paralympics.
Cooper: Michele would be great for that.
Spitz: I just finished the new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, which Ron Howard directed. I donated the description and narrated it. I do a lot of work. I’m very entrenched in this community and making things accessible. It’s very interesting, if Comcast or whoever were to do the Paralympics in the future, that would be an incredible thing.
I do think there was a gap in the public receiving this information. I forwarded the AP announcement, it was well received. Informing the public through a commercial or advertisement a week or two before the Olympics begin would be great.
What’s happening as far as your partnership with forthcoming home automation? Is that tied into what’s happening with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) right now in terms of making things accessible to different communities with different disabilities? I know there’s a big push around that now.
Wlodkowski: It’s not directly tied to what the FCC is doing. I do co-chair the video programming subcommittee of the FCC facility advisory committee. We’re involved in other subcommittees as well that have been set up by that advisory committee. And we have fairly frequent contact with folks who are there. But what I’m talking about with smart home isn’t necessarily directly tied to any activity you might see coming out of the FCC.
Part of my role is to open up our products to the widest possible audience, which includes people with disabilities. We’re in the middle of mid-year performance reviews, and if I were to look at my first half of the year, I would critique myself by saying I need to take on the challenge of shaping that next innovation space. What do we do with a mass-market product to make it work for people with disabilities?
I wish I had us positioned a little bit further along the path, but I think we’re starting to come together now. We’ve got good ideas; we’ve got a really good project to rally around in the coming days, and we’re starting to feel the momentum.
Cooper: Through this new experience, was there something different that stood out and that you found new about the Olympics? Were you able to be part of this for the whole two weeks?
Wlodkowski: I definitely was part of it for the whole two weeks, but I watched a greater portion of the programs with description in the second week. The first week I was taking care of issues as they came up, so I wasn’t paying as close attention to the actual description. I wasn’t relaxed and enjoying the show. But I certainly was the second week. For me, it was the reactions and the subtle visuals that I take for granted, but once you’re told about them, they add meaning.
Michael Phelps hugging his mom or pointing to Boomer in the stands sleeping with headphones on. Those are the little details that if somebody were sitting next to me in the living room telling me, I’d be like, “Whatever.” But the fact that I could get them on my own and have it told to me… I thought the description of athletes’ reactions during an event was great, understanding that some of the dives are done with the diver’s back to the pool—not facing it—that stood out for me.
We heard from one viewer of the descriptions that she learned for the first time swimmers start on starting blocks. She didn’t quite have that information before. It’s those subtle details that bring events to life. The closing primetime show, where they showed the torch burning, got you in that Olympic spirit. Otherwise you don’t know it’s there. I realize how much I miss or take for granted, because it’s assumed the rest of the audience can see it, so they don’t need to describe it.
Cooper: That’s true.
Wlodkowski: It also shows us some things we need to think about. From live description, you do get some talk over the announcers. You can’t really help that, even though they try to get the rhythm of every announcer and try to pick their pauses, it’s impossible when you have just a split second to make the decision of whether you’re going to open the mic and say something. That’s a challenge.
It’d be interesting for the description community and the consumers to get together to talk through all the things we’ve learned and that perhaps we’ll get another opportunity to do a second time around in a couple of years.
Spitz: I’m also curious whether your experiences with the Olympics and The Wiz Live! made you to want to do more such programming. Are there other things that come to mind you would like to see happen based on that? Should it be in alignment with some of the discrepancies you’re talking about refining?
Wlodkowski: I’m technically on the cable side of the house and not the NBC side. I’m grateful I have friends and colleagues on the NBC side who are willing to champion events like this.
I have lots of ideas I think would be great. But I don’t want to get too far in front of where we are. I think we’ve got to learn from this. I think there’s work to do, as you said, to get the word out about what we’re already doing. We tweeted about it. We did social media blasts. We did all sorts of things, but how do you get the message to your target audience? We’re still in an early stage. We’re probably where closed captioning was when it first started.
We’re just now starting to build momentum around descriptions. So we’ll see.
Spitz: Well, congratulations!
Wlodkowski: Thank you! I think what we do with description should be on equal footing with the work NBC did with closed captioning; it went well beyond what was legally mandated by the FCC.
Spitz: That’s absolutely correct. I would be the happiest person on the planet if it ends up matching that level of awareness and implementation.
Wlodkowski: We’ll see where this all goes. I think somebody’s got to put a stake in the ground and try some things. We certainly have, and it’s been announced Hairspray will be available with live description in December. So there will be another musical with live description.
We’ve just got to pick where we think we can pull something off pretty well, and then keep pushing the envelope. But it has to be done in a good, calculated way. I don’t want us to bite off more than we can chew.
Cooper: Is there anyone on the NBC side you’re working with directly who’s also a champion on a corporate level beyond just case-by-case projects?
Wlodkowski: There are people who lead our Symphony effort who are champions. Gary Zenkel on the Olympic side is a huge champion of making this happen, and Maggie McLean Suniewick, who leads our Symphony program, was also instrumental. And the folks who were there day in and day out with the describers, along with our production support team, did a great job of making sure this went off without a hitch.
Description is not as easy to do as closed-captioning, not that that is easy. But from a logistics and production point of view, description is more complex to pull off. It’s finding the right describer for the right type of show; the pool of live describers isn’t as deep for television. I know it’s done a lot more in theater. You want to have people who are comfortable. If I’m going to advocate an audio channel be dedicated and broadcast across the country, I really want to be confident that whoever is behind that microphone has had on-air experience. We just don’t have a lot of that. A lot of description is prerecorded.
I know Descriptive Video Works does a lot of live description in Canada, and I know there are great organizations doing work here in the US. So I think the description community needs to come together and help educate us in the cable and broadcast industries as to who is doing what, and what resources are out there with this type of capability so we can try to do more.
Spitz: Being on the descriptor side of things, that’s fascinating to hear.
It’s unique work, and it does take a certain repertoire, whether it’s for animated, more broadcast-oriented and so forth. There’s a fine line as to where one fits in. I strongly believe if the community that does this work heard your input it would be invaluable to them. They could cultivate their talent and cater their training to exactly what you’re talking about. And there would probably be a whole other category of describers who would then fall into that niche. I’m grateful to have this information.
Cooper: I agree. So Tom, are you all planning to go to CSUN (Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference) this year?
Wlodkowski: I usually always look for a trip to San Diego in March. I promise to actually go to the event this time and not hang out on the beach. Just kidding!
Cooper: As I listen to this conversation, I know there’s a larger group of people who would want to use or have access to this capability who will be attending CSUN. What if we talk with CSUN about a separate session, or maybe something larger that brings the players of different camps together, and see if we can’t use that as a forum to further discuss what you’ve shared here?
With such a great audience that’s international as well as local. If you’d like us to talk to CSUN, maybe the magazine could put something together.
Wlodkowski: That’s a great idea. This is a discussion to be had between the description community and CSUN. If there’s a panel you want to put together at CSUN and talk about the Olympics, or something like that, I’m sure we would be happy to participate.