“They kiss; we tell.” That’s the cheeky motto behind TellMe TV, a new streaming service aimed at providing Described Video on-demand to visually impaired Canadians. The service, which costs $6.99 a month, launched in November and is currently available through a web browser.
It’s the first of its kind in North America, says TellMe TV president and CEO Kevin Shea, and offers 150 movies and TV shows with Described Video audio tracks.
“Pop culture references the sighted community take for granted are now accessible to the visually-impaired,” says John Rafferty, president and CEO of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
Shea says the CNIB “has been instrumental in getting us to the point where we could launch TellMe TV and license our first batch of content.” Shea has a vested interest in the service he is providing — he lost his sight at 19.
Born in Edmonton and raised in Toronto, Shea was an avid TV viewer even as his vision degenerated as a child. He grew up on a steady diet of “The Simpsons” and various “Star Trek” spinoffs. He majored in broadcasting at Toronto’s Ryerson University and worked eight years as a music producer and production manager at a Toronto radio station.
The idea behind TellMe TV was born out of frustration. Shea found navigating the menus on DVDs and trying to locate a Described Video option was almost impossible. He was also disappointed at the inadequate selection of titles with Described Video.
He wasn’t alone. The CNIB estimates there are half a million to one million Canadians with limited or no vision.
The 38-year-old faced the same challenge other entertainment start-ups face: acquiring content. The added challenge was finding content that already came with Described Video, or finding ways to add it. Adding can get expensive. An hour-long episode of an older series — such as “Matlock” — costs around $1,200 per hour.
“At 100 hours, that adds up,” says AMI president and CEO David Errington. His Toronto-based specialty network, AMI-tv, also services the visually impaired. AMI-tv produces Described Video for their own original, in-house productions, says Errington. Acquired content, such as episodes of “Matlock,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Murdoch Mysteries” are done by outside companies.
One is Vancouver-based Descriptive Video Works. They describe “Magnum” for AMI-tv as well as “I Love Lucy.” A leader in the field since 2023, DVW recently did Described Video for NBC’s production of “Hairspray Live!”
All broadcasters in Canada are already obligated to provide at least four hours a week of Described Video content. Most currently over deliver. By 2023, the CRTC has mandated that all prime-time TV must be described.
That’s a challenge for movie networks such as Toronto-based Hollywood Suite. Studios now routinely provide descriptive tracks for their features, but there is a lot of catching up to do with older films.
“We’re always pushing and looking for it,” says Hollywood Suite president and co-founder David Kines. Describing more recent Canadian films has been a priority at his service.
Customer wise, where TellMe TV has an advantage over other providers, according to Shea, is that its site was specifically designed to make it easy for the visually impaired to navigate.
Even with the aid of screen-reading software that turns text into synthesized speech, navigating other sites can be a frustrating experience.
“The problem is you can’t always find the play button,” says Shea. “This is something I insisted on when we were building the site.”
Right now, TellMe TV’s content is limited. Movies and TV shows from the National Film Board of Canada, as well as distributor eOne, are on offer. There are Described Video episodes from “The Ray Bradbury Theatre” as well as a few episodes of the classic sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Shea is in talks with major studios to expand the offerings.
He is also pursuing more sponsorship in order to start generating descriptions in-house. He is working with Deborah Fels at Ryerson University, who runs the Inclusive Media and Design Centre, on ways to add audio descriptions.
“She’s a really fabulous describer,” says Shea, who adds there’s an art to the process. “It’s very much like casting a movie. The right voice and tone makes a difference.”