Netflix and Time Warner Sued Over Lack of Closed Captioning

The National Association of the Deaf recently filed a lawsuit against Netflix and Time Warner for failing to provide closed captions on their online video offerings. According to the lawsuit, less than 5 percent of videos offered over Netflix streaming contain closed captions. The Time Warner lawsuit targets the lack of closed captioning on CNN’s online videos.

The odd thing is that Netflix has in the past blamed technological difficulties for the lack of captioning. According to Reuters,

In 2009, Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt reported on the company blog that technological difficulties were hindering its attempt to add captions to streaming video. The advocacy group argued that captioning is technically possible, pointing to titles already captioned.

That is apparently a reference to this blog post in which Hunt wrote,

Encoding a separate stream for each title is not an option – it takes us about 500 processor-months to make one encode through the entire library, and for this we would have to re-encode four different formats. Duplicating the encoded streams is prohibitive in space too.

So we are working on optionally delivering the SAMI file (Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange), or similar, to the client, and having it render the text and then overlay it on the video at playback time. Unfortunately, the tools for rendering SAMI files in Silverlight, or in CE (Consumer Electronics) devices, are weak or non-existent, and there is some technology development required.

I would expect to deliver subtitles or captions to Silverlight clients sometime in 2010, and roll the same technology out to each CE device as we are able to migrate the technology, and work with the CE manufacturer to deliver firmware updates for each player.

That is absurd. By that I don’t meant that it isn’t correct — Microsoft Silverlight was always full of fail and Netflix committed to moving toward HTML5 back in 2010. Rather it is the frequency with which the technological objection is raised in issues like this.

Accessibility is an issue that should be easily addressable by contemporary technologies in a way that wasn’t possible in the past (or at least much more cheaply and seamlessly than in the past). Instead software companies keep churning out products that actually take us several step backwards and often make it much harder to implement accessibility.

If I walked into someone’s office and pitched a new Internet-based collaboration tool that was the bee’s knees except for the fact that it wouldn’t allow people in one state to collaborate with employees in another state, I’d be laughed out of the room. But walk in with a system that works great except that it is completely unusable by blind or deaf people and nobody seems to give a shit.

We need to do a better job of holding developers’ feet to the fire on this one. Having a system that can’t accommodate blind or deaf people isn’t only a legal and moral issue, but its also a failure of imagination on the part of those developing these technologies. Really, you want me to spend thousands to millions of dollars on these systems and you’re not skilled enough to make them accessible to the blind and deaf? Not impressed.

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