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NBC Makes It Easier For The Blind To Join In The Rio Games


And, finally, the Rio Games are the first ever to include audio descriptions for blind viewers. NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: For most viewers, it can be easy to forget how much of the information in the Olympics broadcast is communicated visually - scores, heights, even nationalities. And for decades, if you're visually impaired, enjoying the games meant piecing together the action from network commentary and the explanations of whoever you happen to be watching with. But for the first time this year, NBC is offering a service roughly equivalent to closed captioning for deaf viewers.


NORMA WICK: Bolt pumping his heart, gets on his knees in front of the massive corp of cameramen, raises his arms. He leans down and kisses the track.

JIM VAN HORNE: Descriptive video is basically television for the blind.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Jim Van Horne is one of NBC's descriptive video narrators.

VAN HORNE: We tell people what they don't see - the color of the uniforms, emotional looks on their faces, the size of the crowd, various aspects that the commentator just would take for granted that everybody can see.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Van Horne and his co-host Norma Wick have been hunkering down in a stateside studio for four hours of live primetime narration each night.


WICK: He's not wearing his gold running shoes tonight. They're red and black, almost look like patent leather.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Wick says it can be difficult work, choosing on the fly which details to describe and how to word them.

WICK: They always say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I guess our job is to take that picture and sum it up in four or five words. It never feels like we have enough time, but at least we're trying to create an opening there, something that gives them a greater sense of the experience.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And, Wick says, it's often the littlest moments that make the games memorable like this one.


WICK: Bolt dancing, blows a kiss to the crowd, winks and raises his eyebrows at the camera playfully.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And that extra information can mean a lot for blind viewers.

PAUL SCHROEDER: I think one of the myths about blind people that we want to make sure we puncture is that we don't watch TV.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Paul Schroeder is with the American Foundation for the Blind in Washington, D.C. He says that blind people watch television about as much as sighted people.

SCHROEDER: Part of that is because we want to be part of the culture, and, of course, we want to enjoy what's available because otherwise we're just shut out from opportunities to be interacting with our peer group in just one more way.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Efforts to include audio description on TV go back to the mid-1980s. But it wasn't until 2010 that making some video description available became a legal requirement for the top four television networks and five largest cable channels.

Paul Schroeder says that while many blind viewers don't yet know about video description, he hopes that this year's Olympics coverage will help to change that.


WICK: The shores of Rio de Janeiro, the waves roll into the beach. The hundred-foot Christ the Redeemer statue overlooks the city, arms outstretched.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And viewers can tune in to watch and listen to the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games for one last time tonight. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).