by Gary Wunder
Since I was a young boy, people have reacted with astonishment when I say that I enjoy watching television. Sometimes this is because they are genuinely surprised, and at other times it is because they wish to point out to me that a totally blind person saying he watches television is absurd. To those who seem truly to be confused, I explained how sound and dialogue often provide enough information for me to enjoy the same shows they do: to fall in love with Jenna Elfman in her role as Dharma, to want to hug the aspiring actor who struggles to get his big break as the character Joey does on Friends, and, yes, to boldly go where no man has gone before (split infinitive and all) as I ride along on the Starship Enterprise.
Discussing television from the perspective of a blind person can lead down many paths. One can talk about the relative merit of television over books, about the great wasteland that television is versus what it might be, about the change in programming that relies more on spectacular visual effects and less on sound and dialogue to describe what is happening. All of those are things that are likely to interest Monitor readers, but in this article I want to focus on how usable the television is and the tendency of many to regard the process of dealing with the hardware to be so difficult that they have simply given it up, preferring other means of entertainment.
My earliest memory of the television came when my parents caused a stir among our neighbors by being the first on the block to purchase a colored television set. All of the electronics came in a nice wooden piece of furniture, and our RCA model had two knobs that figured prominently on the front: one knob turned the television set on and off and raised or lowered its volume; the other changed the television channel. To be sure, there were many other knobs and switches located behind a hinged panel that could be accessed to make changes in the picture, but these were knobs I was supposed to stay away from, and frankly I had little interest in them.
Once the newness had worn off the set and we were allowed to touch it, operating the television was an easy matter. There were three television stations in Kansas City, Missouri, that could be reliably watched. The National Broadcasting Company could be found on channel 4, the Columbia Broadcasting System on channel 5, and the American Broadcasting Company on channel 9. Moving from channel 4 to channel 5 meant rotating the channel knob clockwise one click. Going to channel 9 from channel 5 meant rotating four more clicks in the clockwise direction. When I came upon the television and didn’t know what channel it was on, rotating the channel knob made it easy to figure out. Channels on which no station could be received produced static, so rotating the knob through those channels, whether clockwise or counterclockwise, eventually got me to one of the watchable channels. But on cloudy days the television world expanded, and we could pick up a channel in the distant city of St. Joseph or even a station from Topeka, Kansas, a feat that seemed all the more spectacular because we were picking up a signal from another state. There were, after all, twelve channels one might get, the sets of that time being able to receive channels 2 through 13.
Like radio before it, television demanded a certain loyalty of its audience. Those who were dedicated to a program might set aside an hour every week when they would make every effort to be home, would decide to ignore the ringing phone, and would answer the door on the condition that the person they were allowing in would be quiet until the next commercial break. Missing a show was serious business for a real fan, the only equivalent today being a sports event one must watch live lest she be told the score before watching the game. Missing an episode of Bonanza meant a lost opportunity for conversation the next day, and the chance to see the show might or might not be possible until sometime in the summer if it made the rerun schedule.
The success or failure of a television show sometimes had less to do with its interest and value than it did with when the show was scheduled. Since there were only three television networks competing for the loyalty of viewers in prime time, a new show placed opposite an established one might not get enough viewers to test its worthiness. A show that enjoyed success and was thought to have loyal followers in a different time slot might be moved to one which was dominated by another show on a different network with the hope that it would draw off some of their viewers. Although the realist in each of us understood that success or failure was all based on market share, many a viewer’s heart was broken when their favorite show was canceled or when they had to decide among competing shows, all of which they liked.
Whether one had a colored television or a set that could display its picture only in black and white, every television received its signal through an antenna. Sometimes it was mounted on the roof of the house, but for most people a little gadget called rabbit ears, with a platform containing two antennas and a cable to connect to the television, was enough. It was a given that, beyond the purchase of the television, the electricity to run it, and the more-frequently-than-one-wished maintenance required to keep it in working order, watching television was something one could do free. The first time my family saw an advertisement for cable television, I remember the laughter that ensued. Why would people pay for signals they could easily grab right out of the air? These must be people who were long on money and short on sense.
Within a decade it was clear that those who really liked television were doing more than watching the three or four channels available in their communities. Cable companies began offering programs from stations one could not hope to get, no matter how sensitive his television receiver or how high the antenna. It was amazing to visit someone’s home and find that she was watching the superstation, WTBS in Atlanta, Georgia, when at our home the passing of an airplane or inclement weather could interfere with the television program we were attempting to watch from a station less than thirty miles away.
Over time television antennas began to disappear, and cable TV came to be regarded as one of the utilities one paid. Not only did the cable companies provide access to distant stations, but they began carrying networks whose only purpose was to provide cable content. Sometimes connections to the cable company still relied on using the channel selector of the television in choosing a program, although televisions changed to accommodate the larger number of offerings, since almost no one was satisfied with just receiving channels 2 through 13. Sometimes a cable provider would install a box that was used to control the selection of the channel, but normally these were required only if one wanted the extras—premium services such as movie channels or ones offering viewing of live concerts. Usually these boxes could be easily operated, with a button to move up, a button to move down, and a remote control that would allow direct entry of a channel using a number pad familiar to those who had a touch-tone telephone.
Each little advance made the television incrementally harder to use, and before long the addition of a videocassette recorder meant that the television lover had to understand the interaction among three remote controls, two externally connected devices, and an increasingly complicated television set. Most video recorders did not speak their menu choices, so setting up future recordings was difficult and a harbinger of what was to come.
Over time the television devotee has been transformed from a passive watcher who was told when to show up and how often, into a television consumer who now decides what he will watch and when. At least this is so if one can see. Unfortunately the blind of America have come to find the television more frustrating than rewarding. Options that we watch others exercise simply are not available to us, and, although most of us believe in interdependence as well as independence, it is hard to stomach being the breadwinner of the family but having to ask a grandson to turn on the television so that Grandma and Grandpa can enjoy an evening of entertainment.
The magic this article wishes to be revealed can be found in the work of Comcast to make its set-top boxes accessible for blind people. This does not require the use of special equipment for the blind but special programming that can be turned on or off from any state-of-the-art Comcast cable box. In the same way that one buys an iPhone from the same store as the sighted and turns on the features he needs, the Comcast box that sits near the television of the blind person is the very box that can be found in the homes of millions of Comcast subscribers. Information that makes the box talk is requested using a special key sequence, and any updates that are made to the talking set-top box are made not with hardware changes but with changes in software communicated from the cloud.
When someone who has a Comcast set-top box decides that she likes a program, she can search for that program using on-screen menus and select it for recording. She doesn’t have to be home for the recording to commence, and she doesn’t have to be there to turn it off at the conclusion of the television show. Of course, she can be home watching something else, no longer being restricted to one favorite television show in a given time slot. Given that most services that bring entertainment into the home have hundreds or even thousands of offerings, it is possible that she might wish to record more than one show, and this she can do with a Comcast set-top box, which will allow her to record up to four shows simultaneously. Even if she does not wish to record the show she is watching, the set-top box is making a temporary copy of that show, which means that she can pause it to take a telephone call, rewind ten seconds if she misses a key phrase or event, and, woe to the advertisers, even skip past commercials if she has paused long enough that the show is significantly ahead of where she is watching.
Most of the features we have discussed assume that our Comcast subscriber has exercised the forethought to determine what it is he would like to watch. No longer is this required. Using a service which Comcast calls “On Demand,” he can search back through previously-aired television shows, select the ones he wishes to watch, and have them presented as though they were live. The on-demand service offers not only television shows, but movies, documentaries, and music. Some of this is free (paid for by the monthly subscription), and some of it is available for rent or for purchase. A rented movie will cost less than one that is purchased, and, once it is rented, one must watch it within twenty-four or forty-eight hours. A television season, movie, or concert that is purchased is available any time from the service and may be watched as often as one wishes.
In deciding what one wishes to watch or record, the Comcast set-top box provides several options. A person who knows he likes content on the Disney Channel can scroll through the offerings of that network and either watch past episodes or make selections for ones to be recorded in the future. Alternatively, if one knows that he is going to be home on Tuesday night, he can scroll through a list of that evening’s television shows and decide what to watch. If he has heard about a television show people are discussing at work but has no idea what time it comes on or which channel will broadcast it, he can do a title search using the keys on his remote control pad. If a blind watcher wishes to find shows that are audio described, Comcast has a category for these, and soon described video will be announced while scrolling through any category one wishes to browse.
In an interview with Ray Foret, a particularly enthusiastic customer, he told the Braille Monitor, “In my opinion this will totally revolutionize the way that blind Comcasters experience TV.” When asked what drawbacks he’d encountered in this newfound accessibility, he said, “When you’ve been denied something for so long, and then you find that you can do it, you will do as I did for a couple months, and you will really go overboard with it.” The lure of an on-demand service which allows renting or purchasing favorite movies and TV shows can quickly become an expensive indulgence to any new user of such a service.
As impressive as all of its gains in accessibility thus far have been, Comcast intends to take the business of accessibility even further. Some people have limited use of their hands and do not have enough dexterity to handle the remote controllers that are filled from top to bottom with buttons. Others have difficulty cognitively navigating the menu structure required to make selections. To help more of its subscribers, Comcast is developing a remote control with larger buttons--ones that are dedicated to the most commonly used features. The company is also anticipating an upcoming release of a remote control that will contain a microphone so that one can make his wishes clear by voice. This function will do more than recognize speech; it will also employ artificial intelligence that will allow for complex searches. A person will be able to say “give me a list of all movies about baseball,” and the artificial intelligence will scan not only the title of each movie but its description to determine whether or not it should be on the list from which the television watcher can select a movie. Some of this functionality is already available if a Comcast subscriber has an iPhone, since it can be used to control the set-top box and can even be used when the subscriber is away from home to watch previously recorded movies from wherever he may be.The remarkable thing about what Comcast has done isn’t just that it has given its blind customers what they are paying for. Its import goes far beyond areas of the country in which it is licensed to do business. It clearly shows that programming made available by cable, satellite, and other methods of long distance transmission can be made accessible to the blind, that the concept of a talking set-top box to verbalize on-screen menus is not unknown or impossible to do, and that it does not impose an unfair burden on those who are paid a significant monthly premium to bring entertainment into our homes. It also demonstrates the benefit of collaborating with the National Federation of the Blind in discussing the design and development of the interfaces and the speech that makes this possible. Television plays far too important a role in our society for blind people to write it off or for the industry to write off blind people. Thanks to those at Comcast who understand this and who have risen to the challenge of making television once again accessible and enjoyable for the blind.