Caption This

The other day, I was bemoaning, as I occasionally do, the fact that HBO doesn’t provide digital content for people who are not HBO subscribers or who can’t get HBO where they are. I happen to be a fan of several HBO shows and I would really like to watch them as they air, rather than having to wait for DVD releases. While the network and cable models are different, I would be perfectly happy to pay for an access pass to watch HBO shows when they air, but HBO doesn’t provide this as an option. I used iTunes as an example of a platform that HBO could use to release content, following the model of the networks.

FWD reader codeman38 pointed out that iTunes doesn’t provide captioning for its television shows. Way to go, iTunes.

Captioning of online content is an ongoing problem. iTunes isn’t the only content provider that provides captions indifferently, if at all. Hulu captions some things and not others. Amazon Unbox does the same. And so forth. codeman38 pointed me to a recent post grading various online services on how well they provide captioning and it’s an illuminating read.

‘…it’s a blame game. Apple blames studios. Studios blame Apple. Nothing gets done,’ codeman38 says, and the same holds true for broadcast. While the networks and cable providers have captioning available, individual stations decide whether or not to offer it in their markets. That’s why, for example, some of my readers at this ain’t livin’ report that Glee airs without captioning while others say it is captioned.

Deaf and hard of hearing folks have been campaigning hard for captions for a long time. Marlee Matlin is a major champion of captioning for online content specifically. Captioning is a huge accessibility issue, especially online, where sites routinely provide video that is not captioned or described. This isn’t just a problem for folks who are Deaf and hard of hearing. It’s a problem when content is only accessible in certain countries; if I post a Hulu video, for example, only people in the United States can view it. It’s a problem for people with visual impairments, for people who have difficulty watching and processing video, for people with bandwidth restrictions, for people who are at work and don’t want to disturb people. There are all kinds of compelling reasons to make captions and descriptions of video content universal.

Apple claims to be ‘committed to accessibility.’ Yet, like a lot of companies and websites that talk a pretty talk about accessibility, Apple falls short of actually living up to the claims.

The Internet is an accessibility nightmare, and very few people seem concerned about it, unless they have disabilities that make interacting with digital content challenging. When Marlee Matlin can’t convince Apple to commit to captioning all of its content, how can unknown disability rights activists hope to accomplish it? When numerous campaigns pleading for accessible content get ignored, when captioning is considered a ‘special feature,’ it sends a very clear message. That message is: We don’t care about you. We don’t care if you can access our content. You are not someone we are interested in having as a viewer, reader, or customer.

What can we do about this? Well, we could start by sending a clear message to companies that don’t care about accessibility issues. How would Apple like it if customers boycotted content that wasn’t captioned? How would Hulu like it if people refused to watch or link to videos that were provided without captions? How would the networks like it if people canceled their television service until local affiliates started using captions? If folks who don’t need captioning still identified it as an important feature or even a dealbreaker, companies that aren’t providing it would start to take notice and do something.

Putting the onus for accessibility on the people who need accommodation is unreasonable. And it makes the problem seem like one that only applies to ‘those people.’ The toleration of the attitude that it’s ok to routinely deny access to a group of people is what leads to widespread inaccessibility.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

12 thoughts on “Caption This

  1. To add to the list: Netflix does not caption its streaming services. Their excuse, er, reasoning is that most people do not like captions and at this time they can (basically) only send one channel/preference.

  2. A lot of people have been failing to make this distinction. iTunes (and other content providers like Hulu) has the technology to support captioning; but if the content producer doesn’t upload the caption track along with the video track, there’s not much they can do. All the major television shows that are on iTunes have captioning tracks, somewhere, if they were broadcast with captions. The people from the network making the shows available online are the ones who are not providing captions.

    Now, the content providers (that’s really an ambiguous term in this case, but the places like iTunes and Hulu) could do more to pressure the content producers into making sure the captioning tracks are included. But placing all the blame on them is a misunderstanding of the technology.

  3. I don’t think anyone’s blaming iTunes or Hulu as the only problem. But let’s be honest – if iTunes and Hulu both refused to show content that didn’t have a captions option, then something would change.

    Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous that any scripted show could be shown on t.v. or on Hulu or iTunes or at the websites for various networks without providing captioning. The script is right there! The captioning already needs to be provided elsewhere. It’s basically just another case where people are going to have to campaign or maybe even sue in order to get anything done.

  4. I am not hearing impaired but love closed-captioning because there’s always one distraction or another in my house; if I’m on the computer, sometimes I don’t want sound on and my sound card can be flaky. I too want captioning on everything, including Netflix streaming.

  5. And yeah, big boycotts or company demands could be effective; small boycotts, I don’t know if they would listen. With the new court determination on film showings, though, it seems like there’s some precendent set. In this economy, certainly some transcriptionists would like some employment; while some can be done through software, there’s no substitute for human corrections/assistance.

  6. The Caption Action 2 campaign is working on this, actually. There’s a bill in both the House and Senate that would mandate the same accessibility standards for online media as broadcast.

    Perhaps my comment about blame was ill-worded. What I meant was that I frequently see people calling out iTunes, Hulu, and the like for lack of online captions, when the primary responsibility lies with the people producing the content to make sure that the providers *have* the captions in the first place. The technology is there. The networks just aren’t bothering to use it.

    Netflix is another matter entirely. They do appear to be deliberately leaving out captions even when they’re provided by the producers, and that’s reprehensible.

  7. Lately I’ve noticed that this is a growing problem on news sites. Very often, I click on an interesting headline only to be taken to a video — with no captioning, and no transcript. For me it’s simply irritating because I don’t want to sit through a three minute video — I want to quickly read an article to learn what happened. For people who can’t hear, it means they don’t get to read the story at all.

    A lot of these videos don’t need to be videos in the first place, such as videos where the reporter looks at the camera and talks. But if they are going to communicate a certain story only through video, they should have to caption or provide a transcript (preferably both).

  8. I don’t absolutely require captions, personally; I prefer them because I process written language better than spoken language, but I can do without. But I do believe they should always be an option.

    There is technology to provide optional streaming captions (as Hulu does when they have them–they almost always do for the shows I watch)–Netflix could switch to a more flexible technology (their streaming system is also slow and glitchy compared to other streaming video).

  9. @CL: And of course, when these video clips originate on TV news broadcasts, more likely than not, they were originally captioned.

    That’s the worst thing about pretty much all these situations. I can at least understand it for web-original videos that weren’t originally broadcast with captions, but when it’s stuff that originated on TV, where the captions have already been transcribed and time-coded?

  10. That’s the worst thing about pretty much all these situations. I can at least understand it for web-original videos that weren’t originally broadcast with captions, but when it’s stuff that originated on TV, where the captions have already been transcribed and time-coded?

    What gets me is that Hulu, Netflix and others frequently have shows that have been out on DVD for almost a decade, and those shows generally have either a closed captioning track or a subtitle track. I get so frustrated hearing “the technology to caption videos doesn’t exist” when I ‘rip’ my television shows from my DVD collection and make subtitle files for them. The technology is older than streaming videos, for Heaven’s sake! If they need someone to come down to their corporate headquarters and show them how to use ccextractor, I have the time.

  11. @GodlessHeathen: Yes! CCExtractor is great; I’ve used it even to rip captions from set-top DVD recordings. I’ve used it together with Subler to embed iPod-compatible captions into .mp4 files.

  12. OMG. I just discovered that msnbc.com is now including captioning on clips from Countdown and Rachel Maddow. This makes me incredibly happy. 😀

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