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:


Deaf Politics said...

A similar article was written for the Deaf Politics blog, check it out: http://blog.deafpolitics.org/2010/11/tell-netflix-no-captions-no-money.html

There are additional "take action" items on there that I think is worth sharing.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the Google technology is even necessary. The caption files already exist. They just have to be added in the conversion process.

Anonymous said...

We are trying to organize a boycott and other action steps at the Must Caption Netflix Facebook Page. The more, the merrier - and the more efficient! http://www.facebook.com/pages/Must-Caption-Netflix/175931142432984

Dana said...

Note from the author:

1) Please note that I made some corrections to the original blog.

2) There is no actual "deaf tax" that you'll see posted on a bill anywhere. This is a tongue-in-cheek expression that some deaf writers have used that refers to some of the hidden costs of having a hearing loss when it isn't accommodated.

3) The second and third sentence in the first paragraph are *not* verified statements of fact, as indicated by the second paragraph. Some people are taking the entire first paragraph too literally, however, and are misunderstanding it to think that Netflix really did declare that there would be a deaf tax! Please read the second paragraph again.

Dana said...

Anonymous: My understanding from Hulu.com is that they have to manually format the caption files they receive to match the audio, so some labor has been needed at Hulu even with existing caption files. Google, however, has automatic synchronization technology to match up a caption file with the audio, and it uses this for YouTube videos that are uploaded with a caption file. However, if Netflix hasn't troubled itself to make it possible for viewers to find its own captioned streaming videos, however, it's not likely to have exerted itself to find other solutions to provide good customer service to its deaf and hard of hearing subscribers. It needs to get more motivated and diligent about using better captioning technology and stop being such a couch potato!

Anonymous said...

This likely has to do more with copyright laws than with the technology itself.

We don't know anything about the agreement that Netflix has with the studios, so it's hard to say whether it also includes the rights to content other than the film itself. I know it doesn't make sense, but there are laws out there that say that it's illegal to add subtitles to movies that you do not own/have the rights to.

Hulu has likely worked out an agreement w/the individual studios that allow them to show captions. Many of those shows are also captioned on the studio websites (e.g. ABC/NBC/etc). If you haven't noticed, many of the captions on Hulu are amateurish, which is an obvious indication that the captions are not from the actual TV broadcast. This is an effect of a lack of standardization, among other things.

I'm not defending Netflix here, or disagreeing with what you're doing, but just pointing out that it's not as simple as just adding the subtitles to the streaming feed.

Dana said...

Anonymous, Netflix has indicated in the past that their biggest reason for not providing captions was the technology. To my knowledge, they have not mentioned copyright issues as being a problem.

Hulu.com staff have told me several times that they rely on caption files to be provided to them (and that's why not all programs are displayed with captions---the caption files were never delivered). In my extensive experience using Hulu.com mostly for dramas, it's rare to see "amateurish" captioning, although there are occasional errors (like displaying "l.A." instead of L.A.) and a couple of times, the captions have not been synchronized. Two times, the captions for an episode of Fringe did not match the dialogue (indicating changes in the episode had been made after the caption file given to Hulu was made). I'm not sure why you're seeing poor captions, but Hulu has told me that they do want viewers to tell them about captioning problems, so be sure to let them know when you see problems again.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the error examples you gave, I've seen episodes that had captions with misspellings, incorrect grammar, etc. It's not a big deal. I'd take imperfect captions over no captions any day.

I'm not buying the Netflix "technology" argument. Two reasons: (1) It's easy to rip subtitle data off of a DVD. People do this all the time. (2) They already provide subtitles for a few of their streaming titles. I haven't really looked for any patterns in the titles that are currently subtitled, e.g. are they from specific studios, production companies, etc. I did, however, notice that a large number of the available subtitled titles are TV series, not movies. I haven't looked into whether those same TV series are available with captions on Hulu, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are.

I understand that the whole copyright argument is purely a theory at this point, but I think it's one that makes sense given what has happened.

Christopher Phillips said...

Great post- I am most interested in this paragraph:

"...and millions more who use captions because they're not native speakers of English, have auditory processing disorders, or other reasons"

Do you know if there are any statistics out there that give some numbers on how many users there are who use captions. I am hearing and use captions whenever I can- it just makes a better viewing experience for me.

Unfortunately, sometimes the a company might see more value in meeting the 'wants of the many' versus meeting the 'needs of the few'...

Dana said...

Thanks, Christopher. I don't recall seeing recent statistics, so I invite anyone else here who has seen them to share that info with us. However, I remember reading that when closed caption decoders first became available, most of the people who purchased them were ironically non-native speakers of English.

sponsellerfd said...

Thank you for letting me know about this and for helping me understand more about Netflix's (illegal?) practice.
Perhaps the various actor's guilds and other entities would be interested to know that they are passively promoting discrrimination and losing money due to the willful disregard for the 30 million Americans that are Hard-of-Hearing or Deaf.
Good luck and I will share your blog.

Dana said...

sponsellerfd, I don't think that what Netflix has done is illegal. But consider this quote from the first blog listed in the comments here:

"As a company it is Netflix's prerogative to conduct business as they see fit; as customers it is our prerogative to patronize businesses that don't patronize us."

I think the writer meant to add the word "not" as in the revised quote below:

"As a company it is Netflix's prerogative to conduct business as they see fit; as customers it is our prerogative not to patronize businesses that don't patronize us."

I recommend reading that blog as it provides more links and is tracking how many people are leaving Netflx because of the inaccessibility of its services. The URL again is:


Anonymous said...

Good article. I agree with the post of the individual referring to non-native english speakers. My wife is from france and although she prefers the movie in native language she likes the subtitles so she can follow the entire story.

I think Netflix needs to step up and address this issue. If the industry wants to get us off of physical DVDs then they need to see how they can provide the full DVD features. Otherwise whats the point.

DVD Service said...


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NC-mac-ASL said...

List of Netflix Titles with English Subtitles: 585+ titles so far: http://ncmacasl.blogspot.com/2010/10/netflix-instantwatch-titles-with.html
Works on PC, Mac, Wii & PS3 so far.