A TV that talks back

Comcast’s new talking program guide makes television more accessible

Kim Charlson uses the Comcast talking guide.

Library Director Kim Charlson demonstrates how to use Comcast's new talking guide. Photo Credit: Anna Miller

November 12, 2014

It should surprise no one that Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson is a voracious reader, but in her spare time, she also enjoys the popular television series NCIS. With the audio description feature activated, Charlson can follow along with the show just as well as a sighted person, but until recently, changing channels was a different story.

“I’ve always heard people say ‘there are 200 channels and not a thing to watch,’” she said. “Well, I never knew what I had a choice to watch.”

All that changed when Charlson was invited to test the U.S. cable industry’s first talking television guide, developed by Comcast to accompany its X1 platform. The talking guide features a female voice that reads aloud program titles, time slots and channel numbers, as well as On Demand and DVR options. The feature will be available to the public in the next few weeks.  

Comcast visited Perkins on November 10 to unveil the talking guide, and to install it on a television in the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology. Perched in an armchair, Charlson demonstrated the various functions, scrolling through her favorite channels and checking to see when programs would be airing.

“The best part about all this is that I can sit here and channel surf just like everybody else,” she said. “I can change the channel and know what I’m landing on. It’s really fun to have that knowledge and independence.”

To sighted viewers, watching television might not seem like an activity suited to people with limited vision, but thanks to audio description, Charlson and millions of others are able to enjoy programs ranging from crime dramas (Charlson’s favorite) to cooking shows (a favorite of her husband, who is also blind). Audio description gives people who are visually impaired the ability to understand storylines, characters’ actions and scenery through narration slipped in between dialogue or songs.

Comcast’s talking guide is a welcome upgrade for people who are blind, Charlson said, because watching television provides more than just entertainment; it also allows viewers to connect over shared experiences.      

“Television is not just a box with a screen and a show, television is part of culture and part our society,” she said. “Being able to talk with your friends at work or school about shows that were on last night allows you to be part of a community.”

Perkins student Cullen Gallagher has been waiting for an accessible television guide for years, ever since he read about a similar option offered in the United Kingdom. At the Comcast demonstration, he used the talking guide to locate his favorite channel, the Christian Broadcast Network, and programmed the television to record certain programs.  

“This is amazing,” he said, as the guide confirmed his selection. “I’m really excited about it.”

The decision to unveil the talking guide at Perkins was an easy one, said Steve Hackley, senior vice president of Comcast’s Greater Boston region.

“We were heartened to see the genuine excitement and enthusiasm from Perkins faculty and students who had a chance to see the product on its first day in action,” he said. “It was the perfect match of technology and institution.”