Students and staff at Perkins School for the Blind joined millions of Americans enjoying Thursday night’s live broadcast of The Wiz on NBC, thanks to video description of the production that made it accessible to viewers who are blind or visually impaired.
The Wiz Live!, which featured a star-studded cast including Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige, was the first live TV entertainment event in U.S. history to be made accessible to people who are blind. The video description service was provided by Comcast and NBC in partnership with Descriptive Video Works.
“The broadcast of The Wiz Live! represents a real milestone in how people with visual impairments experience television,” said Tom Wlodkowski, Comcast’s vice president of accessibility. “The combination of accessible content and technology is powerful.”
At a viewing party hosted by Comcast at the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology, a dozen Perkins students and staff lounged on couches to watch The Wiz, a funky, urbanized reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz. A narrator’s voice described the visual aspects of the performance, like costumes, sets, and the facial expressions and movements of the characters.
In one scene, Dorothy struggles against a massive tornado, depicted on stage by dancers whirling around her in long grey capes. The scene contains no dialogue, but a narration track describes the ominous clouds and flashes of red on the dancers’ capes, bringing the spirited performance to life for viewers who can’t see.
For people who are blind or visually impaired, video description is a familiar and appreciated technology. Many new television programs include an option to activate the narration feature, allowing viewers who are blind to watch the same shows as their sighted friends.
For many in attendance on Thursday however, The Wiz was their first experience of a live performance on television with video description.
“I’m excited for it,” said Tanja Milojevic, an intern in the Perkins Library who is visually impaired. “It’s a wonderful end to a long day. Plus, I’ve been into audio-described content since high school.”
Last year, Comcast visited Perkins to unveil its accessible talking television guide, which features a female voice that reads aloud program titles, time slots and channel numbers, as well as On Demand and DVR options. The company later announced the launch of a voice-controlled remote.
Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson, who is also president of the American Council of the Blind, has lauded efforts to make television more inclusive for viewers who are blind. She called the recent decision to include video description in The Wiz “ground-breaking.”
“The path to accessibility is a journey of inclusion of all audiences,” she said. “Just like the yellow brick road is the path to the heartfelt wishes of Dorothy and her friends, the blindness community is very happy to travel on this new path with Comcast and NBC.”