I have some pretty strong opinions about online video captions--in short, I think every video creator should be using them, and for a variety of reasons. I'm actually working on an entire article about that subject, but couldn't ignore the news announcement over the weekend that Netflix and Time Warner have both been sued (in separate suits) for failing to caption online videos.

Netflix & Time Warner Sued For Lack of Captions

Netflix has been sued by the National Association of the Deaf for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). How did they violate that law? By not providing captions on all videos in their streaming service. And the National Association of the Deaf is pretty upset about it.

Here's a direct quote from Arlene Mayerson, an attorney representing the group:

"For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, captions are like ramps for people who use wheelchairs."

From the actual lawsuit verbiage:

"While streaming (video) provides more access to entertainment to the general public, it threatens to be yet another barrier to people who are deaf and hard of hearing."

Since I'm on such a roll with the quotes, let's hear Netflix's response, from Steve Swasey, who is their official spokesman:

"We're aware of and sensitive to the concern."

Well, now... that was enlightening. Netflix claims there are technical issues keeping them from being able to caption every streaming film offered. The National Association of the Deaf thinks that's hogwash, since several titles actually do have captions already (if it's possible to caption one, why not all of them).

Time Warner's lawsuit is basically the same kind of thing--they don't provide captions on all their streaming video content at CNN.com, and an advocacy group (not the National Association of the Deaf) has sued them in partnership with three individuals.

Should Netflix & Time Warner Offer Captions?

Heck yes. Video providers need to wake up and smell the "right thing to do" here, and get on the caption bandwagon. There are tens of millions of people in the world suffering from hearing loss (as of a recent doctor's visit, it turns out I'm one of them, though my issue is relatively small), and those people deserve to know what's going on when they stream a movie to their laptop.

It's a great PR move to provide captions free of charge. But as much as I want to grab Netflix and shake them by the shoulders on this issue, I can't bring myself to call them out. Because while I believe they should offer captions, I don't believe they should be made to do so.

Should They Have To?

Heck no. That's the silliest thing I've ever heard. Did the movie theaters provide captions for deaf people who ventured out to see Green Lantern this past weekend? No they did not. Nor should they have to.

Arlene Mayerson is simply wrong to compare captions on video to ramps outside buildings. It's apples and oranges. Let me continue her analogy a minute... let's say a man in a wheelchair uses a ramp to get into a ski shop. Once inside, is he legally allowed to demand the shop create a pair of skis that will work with his wheelchair so that he can finally go skiing? No... he's afforded the right, by law, to be able to freely enter the store. Not to dictate what that store sells.

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So online, hearing-impaired individuals should have the same access to every website hearing individuals can access. And they do. But they should not be extended the legal right to dictate what kind of content those sites contain.

To put it another way, here's what one Yahoo commenter had to say on the article linked above:

"If I am deaf and don't know how to read then Netflix MUST provide me with a reader that knows sign language. (or I'll sue)."

Exactly... there are limits to what we can force a company to do. If I have a shellfish allergy, and I go to Red Lobster, even if I order a burger... I don't have the right to dictate that the restaurant maintain two separate kitchens... one that cooks the shellfish and one that cooks everything else. I don't have that right. That's not reasonable, and neither is the request to force captioning.

(Also, I can't believe I just quoted a Yahoo commenter.)

It Should Never Have Come To This

Shouldn't captioning be easier by now? I mean, YouTube has a system in place (that, granted, is still in beta) that lets me upload a text file of what's being said in my video, and it just creates and spits out captions naturally after that. Are you telling me that Netflix can't find some temps to type out the scripts to films and create caption files? Or work with film studios, who are generally all creating caption files anyway for their films' DVD releases?

They're claiming it's a technology issue, which I find hard to believe. There are plenty of streaming video sites that offer captions... including Netflix themselves... so it's possible. I also can't believe it's a cost issue--again, hire some starving college kids to type out movie scripts.

It's possible that it's an issue of cost-to-revenue ratio--meaning, maybe Netflix thinks they have so few hearing-impaired customers that the cost to create the captions isn't justified. But that's faulty reasoning--after all, if you build it they will come... maybe the hearing-impaired customers will sign up in droves once Netflix adds captions?

Regardless, this is a huge mess. I doubt the lawsuit will succeed... but strange things have happened. But even if it fails, Netflix is going to take a small hit from the PR on this thing, because they look like a filthy rich corporate giant who doesn't care about disabled people. Which should provide enough public pressure to see them at least increase the number of titles that have captions, if not add them to every title.

  • Mek123

    Um actually I did see Green Lantern with captions at a movie theatre. The theatre was ADA compliant and I used a reflector screen (the captions are projected on to a small reflector that extends from the cup holder. Netflix settled this lawsuit recently.

  • Rizerd

    I think Netflix is simply losing some of their good reputation by not confronting this. As a person with a hearing loss who has a hard time hearing foreign sounding (British) lanquage films, I often just have to turn it off.  Imagine how many great ways this subtitling on streaming movies could be used.   People in noisy areas could follow video plots,  schools could help kids learn to read.

  • John Clark

    One poster uses some sort of 'ski' analogy... which makes absolutely no sense at all in the case of films, and films in the present age. Almost every film that comes out on DVD/Blueray, especially 'block buster' films, have had captioning performed. This leads to 1) captions are already available by the time the 'film' gets to the theaters. (or do you think that the DVD/Blueray releases are actually being worked on by that time these days...). But say for the sake of argument that it would be economically burdensome for a theater owner to put 'caption equipment' in there small mom and pops 'theater'... how many of those are left in the US... vanishingly small numbers... even then, Warner Bros and other distributors could provide an on line Caption package that could be used by an 'iPad' or 'Kindle' display device, and allow for either a theater to buy such for its patrons at a much reduced price from any physical modification to the theater, or an individual could buy their own, and download the latest captions before they visit the theater.

    As it is Warner Bros had pulled all of their scripts, that previously were on line, thus preventing anyone who wanted to hassle with the 'actual' script to get some sort of captioning for some sets of movies... Warner Bros could have seen the 'need' for such in some interim... but as it is, apparently Warner Bros needs a kick in the legal head before they will do anything...

    Hence the need to file suits to get them to something reasonable in this regard. If the user purchased a display device, if they downloaded already existing captions, there would be absolutely no additional cost to the theater owner, Warner Bros, for such a 'service'. And given the price of the iPad or Kindle type devices, this would be a far easier method to implement for the theaters than most other solutions...

    Next session we'll discuss crappy illmaintained Infrared systems that do worse than nothing at all for the hard of hearing...

  • Jennifer Coulter

    I'm hard of hearing and I don't think you understand how frustrating it is having to live in a hearing world that won't adapt to you. I don't EXPECT every single place I go into to accommodate to me because I have a disability, but we have the technology these days to help others who are disabled in many different ways. I don't understand why this is such an issue.

    Deaf people want to be able to enjoy the same things as hearing folks do and that includes watching movies. I want to know what's going on in a movie and even though Netflix offers SOME subtitles, they are seriously flawed because the dialogue is not in-sync with the words. It's frustrating and that's another thing that needs to be fixed.

    I find it difficult to believe that most movie producers aren't aware that this is available seeing as how some Language features on DVDS will offer Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, French, German - whatever - EXCEPT English. That is crap. Same thing goes for stand-up DVDs - they don't ALL offer ENGLISH subtitles.

    Folks complain that United States has foreigners and not everybody wants to learn a foreign language and how we shouldn't accommodate those who don't speak English. What about us who do know and speak English but can't hear it? Why is it that in some DVDS, English is the only language NOT available for subtitles? Not only that - I'm PAYING for this and I'm not a satisfied customer. I want the same benefits offered to hearing-abled folks. And no, I'm not going to just cancel my subscription just because I've said I'm not a satisfied customer. I want equal opportunity for all and I want to be able to follow dialogue in the movie. It's not fair to dismiss the people who are deaf just because it's either a cost issue or disability issue. I don't see why the lawsuit wouldn't succeed, it's a discrimination issue and there are a lot more deaf subscribers than you think.

  • Danielle Loughlin

    "So online, hearing-impaired individuals should have the same access to every website hearing individuals can access. And they do. But they should not be extended the legal right to dictate what kind of content those sites contain."

    The problem here is that we do not have equal access to the site. Hearing people can choose any film Netflix is offereing, Deaf people can't. We just want access to the same thing everyoen else has access to. Deaf people are not dictating the content, only that we be allowed to access said content just like everyone else who paid for a Netflix subscription.

  • Richard Roehm

    If you want to see what's an open captioned video looks like in youtube, take a peek at; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTc2NaT5l7g.

    • Richard Roehm

      This a novel way of showing people what captions is like and make a point about something else

  • Mitch


    When you say that you can't believe that it is a technology issue I think you aren't looking at the whole technology of Netflix. You say you could do it (and Youtube is doing it) on your laptop but what about your Wii or your Xbox 360 or your PS3 or your Roku or your Netflix ready Blueray player or your... you get the picture. Different technology that has the ability to stream a video (in different levels of quality) but not the same technology to all the same things.

  • Chanel Carlascio

    "So online, hearing-impaired individuals should have the same access to every website hearing individuals can access. And they do. But they should not be extended the legal right to dictate what kind of content those sites contain."

    This paragraph reveals your fundamental lack of understanding of the real issue. People with hearing loss do not have the same access to the content that hearing people do. If they are unable to HEAR the video, and no captions are provided, what access do they have? Requiring captions is NOT dictating content - it is simply making the content accessible to everyone.

    If your argument were true, there wouldn't be any captions on TV either. I am hopeful this suit succeeds. Captions benefit a variety of people in a variety of ways - captions are good for EVERYONE.

    Besides, it IS the right thing to do.

    • Sharaine J. Rawlinson Roberts

      Thanks for sharing this, Chanel. UGH!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000609732839 Olivia Mcclure

      I love Netflix but I'm now very disappointed in them!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000037903009 Mike Lees

    Captions are a great SEO Tool for Youtube and notice the captioned videos tab in the Google side bar menu. I think for films and streaming video its a bit unfair I mean whose going to pay the extra cost of captioning it can be very time consuming to get it right that is.

    • Chanel Carlascio

      When film studios turn out millions of dollars per film, captioning a movie is really not cost prohibitive [ You could measure in thousands if not hundreds of dollars]

      From a business perspective, NOT putting forth the effort to make your business accessible to all people (including material posted online) means losing out on customers (and their friends) who have money to spend.

      Of course, by not being accessible - your business already has a reputation in the community which drives potential customers to seek out your competitors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=582689176 Jeff Bach

    So far I have read nothing about any new features in HTML 5 that would somehow improve this issue. Is there anything new and upcoming that could make things better?

    Also wondering about the Flash captioning playback component and it success/ market penetration.

    It seems that some bits and pieces are out there for captioning, but that very few producers know or use those available pieces. The marketplace needs motivation. maybe education? maybe some awareness building? imo, most producers do not willingly turn away from a market, but they will never turn into one either, especially if its mostly hidden.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=582689176 Jeff Bach

    A few years back, I made the pleasant acquaintance of a "late deafened" adult. Patrick C. Great guy. Loves to paddle. I met him at Canoecopia. Anyway - once I saw his pair of cochlear implants I asked him about captioning and his thoughts on it. He pointed me at the "Association for Late Deafened Adults" (ALDA). My thought at the time was to offer my line of DVDs with captioning.

    But first I wanted to get a bit of education on the size of the marketplace. And that is where things got interesting. In the beginning it seemed to me that there s/b an "Amazon" sort of store where captioned titles can be promoted, marketed and sold. It also occurred to me that Amazon could easily add a field to their database which would make it easy to search for items that were captioned. by the way this does not exist.

    I found this issue incredibly messy and frustrating, no matter which way I looked at it. In the end I couldn't justify the financial risk because I could not find any info on the size of the marketplace, nor could I find a market where captioned products were aggregated and so might actually draw an audience looking for those products, nor could I find any sort of promotional group charged with increasing awareness in the creator crowd about the size of the hearing-impaired marketplace.

    What I did find were some great people with hearing impairments of one sort or another. Along with those great people I also found a fair share of frustrated people who wanted captioned products, but would DO NOTHING to help create the market. They just wanted it done because they felt they were entitled. And maybe they are?

    But this group went at it from the pov of "..give it to us because we are entitled". I tried to get them to recognize my point of view which was "..gather some metrics, educate the specialty creators, show them market demographics so they can assess the risk and then watch things happen". But no, no one would or could step up and make a business case for this market. And it may well turn out to be a big market. But I STILL DO NOT KNOW, because it is a very fractured group and no one seems to want to do the work to make their demographic better understood and more VISIBLE.

    I kind of hope something happens with this lawsuit. And if it does unfortunately, the money to provide enforcement of it will probably not exist, so it will have no teeth. But it will be a step in the right direction.

    Right now, most creators/producers know something about this issue, but there is no legal motivation nor is there any market motivation. Market motivation is waaaay better, but there is no organized group (with a budget) that can or will step up and promote it to the general public. At least that I have found.