The New York Times reported yesterday that YouTube, a Google subsidiary, is in negotiations to purchase Next New Networks, the leading provider of original video programming for the Internet. While it is too early to comment because it is not a done deal, this has some interesting implications for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Even if this deal falls through, it would not be surprising if there are future efforts to acquire companies that independently produce original video content for the Web.
As a video site best known for hosting mom-and-pop video content, YouTube‘s possible acquisition of Next New Networks would effectively bring YouTube into more direct competition with commercial video content distributors like Hulu and Netflix. In the accessibility space, what separates YouTube from Netflix is its pioneering automatic transcription technology, which automatically captions any spoken dialogue on its videos without any human intervention. Does it mean that automatic transcription will extend to content that is typically the domain of Hulu and Blip.tv? As it stands today, independent web providers have not responded well to requests to caption their content.
While automatic transcription is not a sure thing today — its accuracy is far below acceptable access standards for closed-captioning, and it may take years for the accuracy to approach that of an average-quality human captioner — there is the possibility that deaf and hard-of-hearing people could start to enjoy so-called Webisodes on a par with their hearing peers, with little or no cost to the Webisode providers.
In the last ten years, the deaf and hard-of-hearing community has found itself increasingly shut out of most video content on the Internet. Prior to the advent of the Internet as a mass medium in the mid-1990’s, all commercial video content not shown at movie theaters was shown on only one other medium — the television set. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990, and a comprehensive closed captioning infrastructure made it possible for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to enjoy closed captioned video content on almost the same terms as their hearing peers. There was no other major video distribution medium besides the television and the silver screen, so the existing captioning infrastructure was adequate to address all available video content then as required by law.
While the pre-broadband Internet had some negative impact on video accessibility for the deaf, the arrival of YouTube and the wide adoption of broadband Internet resulted in an explosion of video content which is not closed captioned, and far outnumbers traditional TV and movie content. While most online video content is non-commercial (i.e., uploaded by individuals like you and me) and thus out of the realm of commercial captioning agencies, there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of hours of commercially produced online video content that is not required to be captioned under existing pre-2010 laws. The recently signed Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, the first major law ever to mandate captioning for Internet-broadcast videos, only covers online content originally broadcast on television. However, even if all online video content is required to be captioned, the current infrastructure cannot support captioning of all video content. The lack of a digital/online video broadcasting format standard and the sheer amount of online commercial video content are major roadblocks.
From a business standpoint, it makes practical sense that YouTube would consider this acquisition. It is the Wild West in the online video programming arena — network-supported Web channels are battling with scores of independent web networks that have sprung up in the past several years. Yet, in any industry that sees too many companies pursuing the same set of consumers, it is inevitable that at some point there will be fewer existing web networks, as many of them will either die out, or be acquired by larger companies including traditional cable and broadcast networks, and major video content distributors such as Google.
The coming industry consolidation may make it easier for the remaining companies to support captioning standards for their video content. Whether it is automatic transcription, or other pieces of technology that can address the issue of captioning millions of hours of online video content, it is highly likely that something will be done to effectively address online video accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. There is a strong business case for this: transcribing all video content will make the video content searchable. As the world’s leading search engine, Google — the parent of YouTube — already recognizes the value of entering the video programming arena.