Saturday, June 13, 2009

Netflix Finally Addresses Online Captioning Issues

In mid-May 2009, I reported that CEO Reed Hastings had confirmed that Netflix would not take an active approach to captioning its online content. The online community reacted immediately to CEO Hasting's comments. As of today, the Facebook group, "Netflix Watch-Instantly Needs Closed Captions!" had 983 members--most of whom joined after my review of Netflix's annual meeting was published. According to some reports, Netflix recently received thousands of inquiries regarding captioning online content.

Netflix finally issued a statement regarding captions yesterday. Click here to see it. The gist of the statement was that captioning would be supported on a specific Microsoft media player in about one year:

Captioning is in our development plans but is about a year away...I would expect to deliver subtitles or captions to Silverlight clients sometime in 2010.

One reader, Chris, wasn't buying Netflix's explanation:

I am not personally affected by Netflix's lack of subtitles but from reading multiple deaf consumer's complaints about Netflix's lack of support of Closed Captions I can sympathize with their point of view. from a technological standpoint I would say that Netflix has totally failed. I've been able to view DivX movies with subtitles for at least 7+ years. And it in no way required bringing the text into the the video. In fact all it required was a simple time-stamped .txt file that took up maybe 10-20 KB (that is 0.001% the size of a normal Netflix movie). There should be ZERO reason why Netflui/Silverlight can't support the use of .SRT. files and be able to EASILY support CC in multiple languages. Quite frankly I think Netflix has really disappointed a non-significant size of its customer base and is hiding behind non-existent "technological difficulties" as an excuse.

Personally, I view Netflix's response with cautious optimism. After receiving thousands of inquiries about online captioning, Netflix now understands that its cavalier approach to the issue was unacceptable. Also, by publicly declaring that online captioning will be available in some format in "about a year," Netflix has committed itself to a particular date. If it fails to provide online captioning by July 2010, its reputation and perhaps share price will suffer.

To be continued...

Update on June 15, 2009: I forgot to add that celebrity Marlee Matlin gave her support to online captioning via Twitter:

[from her friend] I called Netflix and talked 2 one of corporate offices Over 8000 letters & phone calls about #caption this month! YES!!

Update on July 10, 2009: I recently tried to enjoy Gran Torino, but it didn't have TV captions or DVD subtitles. I called customer service, and she sent me another DVD after assuring me the DVD had captions. (NFLX lists Gran Torino as a closed captioned film.) The second DVD also didn't have captions.

I noticed the DVD cover was gray. It turns out that gray-colored DVDs are made specifically for Netflix and may be different from other publicly-sold DVDs. In this case, it appears the studio, Warner Brothers, didn't provide Netflix with a captioned DVD. No one had apparently figured this out. Netflix and its contract lawyers should ensure that all of its specially-issued DVDs have captions. Why would any studio want to prevent hearing impaired people from enjoying their product?

Update on April 18, 2010: Netflix has finally captioned some online videos, but only 100 so far. More here. Looking at's options, which have included captioning and now transcripts, I am still disappointed with NFLX.


RLM said...


Good blog posting!

I would like to sign up for the online petition for Netflix streaming video caption.

What is the petition website, please?

Robert L. Mason (RLM)
RLMDEAF blog/vlog

Matt Rafat said...

RLM, there are numerous petitions out there, and the best way to see them all is to join the Facebook group I mention in the post. If you join the Facebook group, you will also help NFLX and the studios see how many people care about online captioning. In any case, here is one petition:

If the link doesn't work, try googling "COAT petition Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act." I hope this helps.

Matt Rafat said...

RLM, see also:

Anonymous said...

Good post, Matt. Minor error - you wrote July 2009 instead of July 2010. Seems like a long time to wait after the deaf community has already waited 2 years. No wonder the deaf community seems to be out of patience as seen on Twitter.

Matt Rafat said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the correction re: the date--I have made the change.

I agree it is a long wait, but we finally have Netflix's top brass telling us that online captioning will definitely happen. If it doesn't deliver, Netflix cannot blame a low-level service rep. Its reputation and integrity are on the line.

One reason I am hopeful is because Microsoft (Silverlight's creator) has a good reputation when it comes to accessibility. Perhaps the NFLX/MSFT partnership will finally result in full accessibility. Note that MSFT has a sizable financial stake in the outcome, because it is spending millions of dollars trying to unseat Real Network's media player.

hyperfantastic said...

Great post! I am not deaf, but have always been annoyed my roku player doesn't support captioning... thanks for taking this on..

Alison said...

Accessible Media Project at Microsoft on Silverlight (as it stands):

"... accessibility using Silverlight.

In the first release, the player supports the following accessibility features ...

1. Reading closed captions from W3C timed text files and switching on and off ..."

If platform accessibility is there already, then ....?

Drakimor said...

I do believe Netflix is not telling the whole story, and should have been up front about their roadmap and why this is not trivial to implement I can understand why they aren't.

Netflix is caught in a very tight spot politically. Studios have forced them into using very specific encryption protocols and limited what they can do with the videos. Do you think they would choose silverlight, a new and untested protocol with low install base if they didn't have to? Microsoft has snowballed studios into thinking this is their only option.

The studios also are very much against online distribution, they don't understand it and in their view it costs them money, so why would they be inclined to cooperate with Netflix goals? You cannot simply use a plain text file as studio's will not allow netflix to store one byte on the hard drive, or in an unencrypted form.

An example is a coke can. Due to the studio restrictions Netflix must get individually signed permission papers in order to air any episode of any show which has a coke can in it. Coke cannot even give them a blanket permission slip.

I am not saying Netflix shouldn't nor can't deal with this, they both should and can, but give them a little leeway. It is very expensive for them to do anything due to legal costs, not technological, although that end is also non trivial due to imposed restrictions.

Now that it has become a PR issue, it is worth them spending the money, so count this as a success. Take the pressure off of Netflix and put it on the production studios who hang on to outdated business models and force this sort of stupidity.

If you pressure studios enough to give Netflix the freedoms they do not have now, their implementation cost and time goes down significantly. While you rail on Netflix the studios are cackling with glee as they want online distribution to fail. Netflix has expressed a desire to work with their users on this issue, work with them in return and assault the studios who caused this issue with as much zeal :)

The Last Booger Bender said...

I do not understand why it's so difficult to caption video? I mean this is a free open source project wtf is wrong with netflix here? Capitalism at best.