The "thing" was the remake of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz with real-time video description — the first live entertainment program in U.S. history to be accessible to people with visual disabilities. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called it "genius."
As Vice President of Accessibility at Comcast Cable, Tom — blind since birth — was more than just an interested viewer. For Tom, his team, and the entire company, The Wiz Live! epitomized our goal to make our technology, entertainment, and services accessible to the widest possible audience.
The December broadcast capped a groundbreaking year for Comcast NBCUniversal. From a TV guide that talks, to a blind girl’s journey down her yellow brick road, to an African American version of Oz we can all now experience, 2015 was the culmination of years of work making our products more accessible.
Our 2015 accessibility accomplishments galvanized people inside and outside the company. They captured the attitudes that define our company culture: Think like an entrepreneur, embrace opportunity, and take risks in the service of innovation. And on a human level, they filled us with pride.
"The [X1 talking guide] reinforces what we teach here at Miami Lighthouse — that it’s possible to see without sight."
President and CEO
Miami Lighthouse for the Blind
VOICES OF INNOVATION
X1 boxes with talking guide activated nationwide
It all started with the X1 talking guide, which traces its roots to a 2012 brainstorm session where a small team of Comcast developers asked a classic "what if" question: What if we gave customers a new way to discover what’s on TV? This simple text-to-speech idea picked up steam when Tom joined Comcast later that year.
Tom knew firsthand why this was necessary. "Visually impaired viewers were often stuck in an ancient channel up/channel down paradigm, wading through content with little context," he says.
Developed with extensive input from Tom, visually impaired testers, and advocacy groups, the X1 talking guide is far greater than just a more accessible TV interface. Functionally, it reads aloud channel names and numbers, time slots, and program details. But emotionally, it represents a leap forward in independence. Visually impaired viewers can now easily watch and record their favorite shows without assistance from a spouse, parent, child, or other viewer in the room.
The talking guide revolutionized accessible TV entertainment. "The impact was tremendous," Tom says. "It was a true game changer for accessibility." And it helped position Comcast NBCUniversal as a leader in technology for visually impaired customers.
"Comcast has not just provided a new feature, they’ve made a bold move to send a powerful message — a message of hope — a message that every person matters."
RAINBOW OF OPPORTUNITY
Developing the X1 talking guide was an achievement in itself. It also inspired us to push even further, spurring our next "what if" question: What if we could bring together talent and creativity from across the company and show what it’s like to experience entertainment when you’re blind?
The result was "Emily’s Oz," an acclaimed 60-second commercial that aired during the 2015 Academy Awards. A promotion for the X1 talking guide, the ad told the story of Emily, a 7-year-old girl who was born blind, yet sees the world more vividly than most.
Number of visually impaired people living in the U.S.
Legally blind people living in the U.S.
In making the commercial, we asked Emily to describe what she envisions when she watches her favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. We then enlisted some of the entertainment industry’s finest puppet and set designers and makeup artists to bring her vision to life. The TV spot, national campaign, and accompanying interactive website drew praise from across the country and helped spark a conversation about how people with disabilities access entertainment.
We continued the conversation with the May launch of the XFINITY remote with voice control, which enabled customers to use their voice to navigate thousands of shows and movies on X1. Viewers can search for content, set DVR recordings, get recommendations, and navigate XFINITY On Demand.
And we weren’t done yet.
"Real tears came to my eyes, because I knew, right then, that this was something absolutely unbelievable, and that I should be proud of the part I took in building it."
X1 talking guide development team member,
upon watching the "Emily’s Oz" commercial for the first time
The pursuit of innovation requires risk. A little good timing and luck also don’t hurt.
Maggie Suniewick, Senior Vice President of Strategic Innovation, was once Tom’s office neighbor. Reunited at a meeting last year, the two friends discussed how they could work together. The success of the X1 talking guide and the "Emily’s Oz" accessibility spot led Maggie and Tom to talk about cross-company collaboration, thinking big, and taking risks. Maggie is responsible for identifying and promoting companywide marketing initiatives to support upcoming NBCUniversal programming, movies, and events and Comcast’s products and services.
Number of utterances — the announcement of a channel, show title, or menu item being read aloud — on the X1 talking guide between January 2015 and February 2016
"Tom and I thought ‘How cool would it be if we took The Wiz Live!, which was our planned live entertainment special for December, and made it accessible to people with visual disabilities?’" she says.
At an exploratory meeting in September, Tom outlined the idea for a video description broadcast: Live narration would use natural pauses in the dialogue to describe visual elements of the show. A follow-up meeting in October with leaders from across Comcast NBCUniversal cemented the idea. The countdown began.
It was a big risk for Tom and the company. Nobody had ever tried something so bold in a live broadcast before. If it worked, it would be the latest triumph in a year full of firsts for accessible entertainment. But we didn’t know for sure how it would play out.
Tom says pulling off something like The Wiz Live! — and taking the necessary risks to try — starts at the top. "There are so many extraordinarily talented people across the company willing to lean in to get something done," he says. "That doesn’t happen by accident. The entrepreneurial spirit and permission to take risks come from our leaders, from Brian Roberts on down."
A historic first for TV entertainment – NBC will air The Wiz Live! w/ video description for viewers w/ vision losshttps://t.co/VDkh0otvo1— Tom Wheeler (@TomWheelerFCC) December 3, 2015
"What you and I might say in three sentences, they might have to put into three words because you don’t want to step on the dialogue."
CEO and President of Descriptive Video Works,
on the challenge of narrating a live performance
Which brings us back to that night in Tom’s living room. You could excuse him for being nervous. As an employee, he was about to witness a defining moment for accessibility at Comcast NBCUniversal. And as a consumer and viewer who is blind, he was about to experience a true first in storytelling for the visually impaired.
"At 8 p.m., when I heard the first words out of the describer’s mouth, I jumped in the air," he says. "Because at that point I knew the vision was real at last. We had just made change happen, all of us." Again.