Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dealing with inaccessible business practices: Netflix

Out of 10,000 movies and more than 20,000 TV programs which Netflix streams online, the company has made only 300 available with captions.  Yet just yesterday, Netflix announced that it would be charging deaf and hard of hearing people a deaf tax in order to continue to use its DVDs, while people with normal hearing would be given a whopping discount to use only streaming videos at $7.99 a month.  Netflix really, really likes people who have normal hearing.

What?  Did the company really say all that?  Of course not---but it might as well have.  Its new pay structure discriminates against deaf and hard of hearing people, who would have to pay more to use the DVD service while continuing to subsidize the streaming videos they can't use because Netflix has been so slow to caption them---or even make it possible to do a search for the few that are captioned.

Yet virtually all new DVDs and TV programs have captions or subtitles.   Why hasn't Netflix figured out how to repurpose the captions and subtitles from DVDs more quickly for online streaming?  Hulu.com does this with a very short turn around period without even charging viewers.  Netflix has dragged its feet about doing this even when it's raking in millions of dollars from its subscribers.  The problem seems to be one of attitude and will, not resources. 

The technology's clearly available.  YouTube can automatically synchronize a caption file with the audio in videos that are uploaded to its web site, and does this for free for all videos uploaded to the web site (if the option to do so is turned on).  Although Netflix would probably have to pay Google, the owner of YouTube, to use that technology, doing so would pay off in making the streaming videos accessible to 36 million people with hearing loss and millions more who use captions because they're not native speakers of English, have auditory processing disorders, or other reasons.  There's a huge market out there for captioned content, but the company seems to have made hugely erroneous assumptions about the large need for captioning.  An investment of a couple of hundreds of dollars in reformatting the already provided captioning for each movie would allow thousands and thousands more subscribers to watch those movies.

Deaf and hard of hearing subscribers had been putting up with this inequity because the DVDs were accessible to them and there was no added cost to them for using the DVDs, even though they were not getting the same level of service that all other customers were. But now?

Read this copy of the email that Netflix sent out to a subscriber of the unlimited plan announcing its price increase:

We want to let you know about two important changes to the Netflix service.
1.  The price of your current plan is changing from $16.99 a month to $19.99 a month. This new price will be effective with your next billing statement on or after January 2, 2011, and will be referenced in your Membership Detail. With your current plan you can both instantly watch unlimited TV episodes and movies on your computer or TV and receive unlimited DVDs by mail.

2.  We now also offer a new $7.99 a month plan which lets you instantly watch unlimited TV episodes and movies on your computer or TV.  This plan does not include any DVDs. All the titles you can watch instantly on your current plan are also available on this new plan, and as a reminder, not all titles on DVD are available to watch instantly. This new plan is available immediately – if you'd like to switch to this new plan at any time, simply visit Your Account.

Why the changes? Our selection of TV episodes and movies available to stream has grown dramatically, and as a result most members want us to deliver unlimited movies and TV episodes two ways: streaming instantly over the internet plus DVDs by mail. The price change will allow us to continue to offer the popular plan choice of unlimited TV episodes and movies streaming instantly along with unlimited DVDs. The new plan, which does not include DVDs, is a great option for the increasing number of members who only want to watch instantly. The $7.99 a month price reflects no DVD shipping costs on this plan.

We hope you're enjoying great TV shows and movies from Netflix, and that you'll continue to enjoy Netflix on whichever plan you choose. We realize you have lots of home entertainment options, and we thank you for your business. As always, if you have any questions, please call us at 1-800-715-2146.

–The Netflix Team

My suggestion:

Stop rewarding with your dollars a company that is knowingly disregarding the caption needs of deaf and hard of hearing people.  Remember, it doesn't even make it possible to do a search for captioned streaming videos.  You have other options for entertainment (discussed below).

Tell the company that it needs to do four things:

a)  Offer a DVD-only plan for people who cannot use uncaptioned streaming video (which will include deaf and hard of hearing people)
b)  Provide an online search engine that allows people to find captioned or subtitled videos on the Netflix web site
c)  Hire fresh new talent who are motivated and dedicated to providing captioning for DVDs as quickly as possible.
d)  Let you know when it substantially improves the accessibility of its services for deaf and hard of hearing people so that you can become a customer of Netflix again

What are your other entertainment options?

1) Hulu offers many captioned TV programs and some  movies.  Search for captioned media by going to the "Recently Added" or "Most Popular" page and click on the CC box.

2) Many local libraries loan out DVDs, which you may be able to reserve online

3) For new releases, you can reserve DVDs online from Redbox, which has kiosks at 7-11, Lucky's and other places.  For more info, see:

(I have not used this service myself.)

If you know of other options that offer access to captioned entertainment, please leave a comment.

I believe we need to reward companies that do try to provide access, and to pull our business from companies that don't. Let me know what you think!  If you spot any errors in this, please let me know that as well.

Late Additions:

The Netflix CEO blogged more than a year ago about  Netflix's technical reasons for not providing captioning: