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Knocking On Netflix’s Door: Captioning Revisited

Netflix app on the iPhone, with a bucket of popcorn nearby.

Popcorn and Netflix, but no iPhone captions! (Photo credited to Orlando News Center)

While Netflix celebrates a milestone in its torrid growth by announcing 2011 first-quarter subscriber numbers which now surpass that of cable giant Comcast, headwinds are appearing on its horizon. As the Los Angeles Times reports in its April 23 article, Netflix — which has had no competition to this point in the online video subscription market — will find its turf invaded by Amazon, Best Buy, Dish Network, even Wal-Mart.

Which brings up the burning question for deaf and hard-of-hearing movie customers: will the new entrants in the online video subscription space provide captioning for its offerings?  When one looks at the economics of captioning, the answer may, unfortunately, be no.  Or not so much.

Netflix has endured a great deal of criticism from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community for what they believe is a slow pace in delivering captioned online video, and for its lack of accurate and transparent information on this topic. It has been left up to Phlixie, FeedFliks, and Mike Chapman’s blog to provide the most reliable data for deaf consumers on available Netflix online video movies with captions.  To date, according to Phlixie’s counter, 2,400 of Netflix’s 11,500 online movies are captioned or subtitled (up from 300 in December 2010).

While it has been a difficult experience for deaf Netflix customers to locate these movies and enjoy the Netflix experience, Netflix did not endear itself to them when it released its new pricing plan in the fall of 2010 which reduced the price of its instant-streaming plan, while increasing all DVD-by-mail plans by one dollar. A deaf blogger likened the Netflix pricing plan to a “deaf tax,” a term that quickly gained currency among the deaf. The National Association for the Deaf has been extremely critical of Netflix’s actions on this issue. And Don Cullen has launched a class action suit against Netflix.

What is more, there is no captioning of Netflix movies on the iPhone, iPad, Android and Xbox platforms — a problem that is also common among cable providers. It has been anecdotally documented that Time Warner Cable and Comcast do not provide captioning on these mobile platforms at this time.

An industry source says he is pessimistic that Netflix’s potential new competitors will provide captioning for its online movies. He says, “Captioning online movies costs money. It doesn’t really matter what they are doing, whether they are reusing existing files, converting to a new standard format, aligning the format, or doing everything from scratch. It costs money. This isn’t something that the other companies are going to want to invest up front.”

A major element that plays into the complex online movie captioning issue is the friction between the studios and Netflix. Netflix’s rapid growth has taken substantial revenue from the studios, so Hollywood is digging in. Instant online movies require licensing from the studios — which they can provide. The same industry source suspects “the studios will give the online providers the movie under some license agreement, but this likely does not include any additional features like subtitles.” So Netflix is working with the captioning providers, including WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media, to develop the subtitles for their own online movies.

What it all adds up to is a complicated story. Who is responsible for providing the captions? The studios? The online video providers such as Netflix?  The new 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 provides little clarity on this issue, so it is almost certain that lawmakers in the United States Congress will revisit this law with an eye toward broadening and more clearly defining the online video content that is required to be captioned.

Until then, deaf and hard-of-hearing movie enthusiasts will have to content themselves with searching for movies through Phlixie, canceling their Netflix subscriptions (as some have done), or — in the true spirit of free-market competition — join Netflix’s future competitor with the best record of captioning its online movies.

7 comments… add one
  • J.J. April 26, 2011, 4:36 pm

    iTunes is doing a decent job…they seem to be captioning all new releases now. I watched a movie last night on my iPad…nice…

    But iTunes sells rentals individually…and can be expensive…

    For me, I am going with whoever caters to the deaf community the most.

  • David April 27, 2011, 10:12 am

    I would suggest that Deaf groups borrow a tactic supposedly used by the Yakuza in Japan: Buy a share of NetFlix stock, attend the annual shareholders’ meeting(s), and delay the meetings with endless motions and other parliamentary issues. Repeat until NetFlix agrees to actually offer subtitles or captions on all or the majority of their online content.

    Another suggestion: The standard for digital movies needs to be open captions of *all* movies in letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

    David

  • Jos April 27, 2011, 12:25 pm
  • Sebastian Barrett St.Troy May 7, 2011, 1:29 am

    With understanding of Netflix offering subtitles on some of their streaming content, but also believing that they can do more, there is now a petition, “Netflix: Make Films Accessible for the Deaf & HOH” to hopefully affect positive change. You can read the Petition, sign it, and keep up to date through this link: http://www.change.org/petitions/netflix-make-films-accessible-for-the-deaf-hoh

    With NAD and Don Cullen pursuing legal action, supporting and spreading the word about the petition will help everyone involved. Thank you for Blogging, Vblogging, and emailing your contacts with information about the petition.

  • Don Cullen May 13, 2011, 12:18 am

    Michael Janger-

    Just wanted to keep you updated. At the time of your blog post, you stated:
    “What is more, there is no captioning of Netflix movies on the iPhone, iPad, Android and Xbox platforms…”

    As of today (5/12/11), Netflix updated their app for the iOS platform to support subtitles.

    Thanks for an excellent article! Quality articles, actually. I’ve just subscribed to your blog. Beautiful design, very minimalist- clean and refreshing. You have my heartfelt kudos. 🙂

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