We've all been there: you're hanging out with friends when the conversation suddenly turns to the latest episode of House of Cards or the recent Jennifer Lawrence blockbuster. You haven't seen this particular television show or film, so for the next fifteen minutes, while your friends dissect the plot and recount that hilarious moment, you're left finding creative ways to stir your coffee.
Television shows and movies constitute an enormous part of our culture, and not being in on the story can feel isolating. This is especially true for people with visual impairments. Sure, the blind and visually impaired can listen to a movie or television show, but so much of what happens in the story — from a character's subtle glance to a car exploding — is visual.
Crossway Media Solutions is an online entertainment service working to make films and television shows more accessible for people with disabilities. This year, the company will launch TalkingFlix, the first audio-described, on-demand entertainment service for those with visual impairments. "Our main goal," TalkingFlix head of content Ellen Pittleman tells The Week, "is accessibility. We want to help sighted and non-sighted populations have a shared social experience."
According to Pittleman, who was a Paramount executive before joining TalkingFlix, broadcast networks for years have been making audio tracks that describe programming visuals. In April 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began requiring major networks to provide 50 hours of described programming per quarter. Disability advocates saw this new legislation as an opportunity to approach film studios and encourage them to provide this service as well.
They quickly realized that the cost of creating these tracks was difficult to justify. "We were just about to release Titanic when I was at Paramount and we were approached," Pittleman explains. "It was an important move for the studio to participate in providing this service because Titanic was to be our biggest DVD release ever. Unfortunately, in retrospect we found that the cost of creating these tracks was often not being recovered by the sales."
Most DVDs don't include an audio menu, and movie theaters and streaming services are often set up for audio-described content. As a result, it didn't make sense for studios to invest the time or money into making these tracks available.
Now, Pittleman is in the process of working with these production companies to recover some of those old tracks from studio libraries, while giving content providers a market for creating such tracks. By bridging the gap between studios and consumers, TalkingFlix aims to offer hundreds of popular titles that customers will be able to access on their televisions or mobile devices.
The idea behind TalkingFlix has a long backstory. The company's CEO, David Timar, is not blind, but is visually impaired and has close ties to the blind community. He built a career in the tech world, but he's no stranger to the film industry. His father, Peter Timar, is a well-known Hungarian director and tireless advocate for media accessibility. "Growing up," David Timar tells The Week, "I realized the problem my father was trying to solve was not a local problem, but a global one... My dad's work with [the visually impaired] community help me understand the need."
Timar came up with the idea to market audio-described tracks years ago, but the project only took off last year when an investor encouraged Timar to apply for seed funding.
Finding a consumer base should not be a problem. According to the FCC, there are approximately 25 million Americans and 289 million people worldwide with visual impairments. The bigger obstacle — and the reason many companies have failed to tap into this niche market — involves getting investors and the studios to sign up. "The biggest challenge," Timar says, "is telling investors we are going to get the content and being able to strike a deal with studios based on an unprecedented market. It's a back-and-forth game."
TalkingFlix is in the process of closing its first deal, and if it succeeds, it will be the first company to overcome this hurdle, gaining access to a pool of consumers that even bigger names like Netflix and Hulu haven't reached.
The program plans to launch later this year, but you can sign up for the service now. Gearing up for the launch, Timar and his team have several goals. In the first year, they hope to grow the library and make TalkingFlix available to the English-speaking world as soon as possible. Long term, Timar says he wants to make audio-described content available to Spanish-speaking countries, India, and China.
"Eventually," Timar says, "I would like TalkingFlix to be a household item worldwide."