Netflix Adds Subtitles to More Streaming Content, Stirs Up Controversy

The company has just announced plans to increase subtitles on streaming content. But it's not enough, say deaf advocates. For some, in fact, Netflix's recent shift to streaming and its price hike, looks like something of a "deaf tax." Is Netflix listening?

Last night Netflix announced that it had greatly expanded subtitling on streaming content, and would continue to do so. On the Netflix blog, Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt said that in the U.S., over "3,500 TV episodes and movies have subtitles available, representing about 30% of viewing." (This didn't count the already "burned in" subtitles on foreign content, he added.) He wrote that Netflix expected to hit the 80% mark by the end of 2011 in the U.S., with similar aims for Canada, and he linked to this page, which lists "all of the TV shows and movies that are available with subtitles."

The announcement pleased many deaf and hard of hearing people, some of whom tweeted triumphantly on Twitter. But one man, Mike Chapman of North Carolina, has launched a small campaign questioning Netflix's data, posting a rebuttal in the comments section of the Netflix blog and responding to many of the triumphant tweets with one of his own: "based on my own stats, only 6.37% of titles are at least partially subtitled http://bit.ly/nf-cc-xls."

Chapman is not deaf himself. But his wife is hard of hearing, he tells Fast Company, and he is an ASL interpreter for the deaf. And he loves watching Netflix.

Still, he has made himself something of a gadfly to the company on the subtitles issue. For a while now, he has kept a running tally of the few Netflix titles that supported subtitled streaming. Eventually, he lobbied sites like InstantWatcher.com and FeedFliks.com, which update nightly with new streaming titles that are available on Netflix, asking them to keep a tally of subtitled films. "They each found different automated methods to search for titles several months ago," Chapman tells me via IM, "though Netflix does not make it easy in their API."

Certain industry watchers think he's on to something. "Chapman is a genius," said DeafTechNews in December.

So what's up with the discrepancies between Chapman's and Netflix's data? Netflix says 3,500 titles have subtitles; Chapman says 736. Further complicating the matter, the page Netflix links to lists 722 titles. (We've reached out to Netflix to comment, and will update when they do.)

Off the bat, we can pinpoint one reason why Netflix's number is higher: Chapman counts a TV series with multiple episodes subtitled as a single entry; Netflix apparently counts each individual episode. At my request, Chapman calculated the figure if each episode were treated as an individual title, and he got 3,668.

So it looks like Netflix is playing fair with numbers--but there's one significant problem. Chapman has identified dozens of streamable TV series that for whatever reason only have subtitles on some of their episodes. Some have all but one episode subtitled; some have only one episode subtitled. Others have about half subtitled, half not. If Chapman's list is correct, there is a serious lapse in consistency in subtitling policy. Which must be incredibly frustrating for the young hard-of-hearing girl, say, who has just gotten engrossed in Season 2 of Hannah Montana, only to learn that episodes 3 through 13 are without subtitles.

Netflix's behavior in the past has been enough to irk not just Chapman but other deaf advocates into action. The Deaf Politics blog has advocated dropping Netflix over the subtitling issue. There's a "Must Caption Netflix" Facebook group that demands "Equal Acess for Deaf/HH!" One advocate has even pursued a class action lawsuit. (A law firm turned down his request for representation; he says he's soldiering on himself.) And deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in 1986's Children of a Lesser God, has been an enduring Netflix critic. One of her many tweets on the matter reads: "Both @netflix and @itunes are captioning. But at this SLOW pace, I'll be 70 before I can SEARCH and FIND ANY title like everyone else."

As for the 30% figure in Netflix's blog post, Chapman is still puzzling over that. He just thinks they may be using a different way of reckoning the data. "I think they may be counting "minutes" of programming and I would have no easy way to access that data," he says.

He adds that, on balance, he's pleased by aspects of the recent announcement. "I think what has upset the deaf community most was the recent Streaming Only option which at the same time raised prices on the DVD+Streaming price plans. Since deaf people can only get full benefit from DVDs and not streaming, they equated the price hike with a deaf tax!"

Netflix is taking a step in the right direction today. But until they more fully accommodate their deaf customers, the praise should remain measured.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user waiferx]

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5 Comments

  • ncmacasl

    Update: the publisher of Phlixie.com (a new site showing Netflix Subtitle listings) Has shared the following data: Total # of Netflix Movies + Total Number of TV Episodes (as of 2/28/11): 28,914 -- So the data we are assuming Netflix is using for their 30% number seems to come from this number and based on this number, the % Subtitled is currently 12.8%, not 30%. Next, we could assume "minutes" of programming. Phlixie is checking to see if they can pull the data from the Netflix API. see my Data Sheet for more details: http://bit.ly/nf-cc-xls

  • don cullen

    I'm the dude you're referring to in "One advocate has even pursued a class action lawsuit. (A law firm turned down his request for representation; he says he's soldiering on himself.)"

    I have three things to say.

    First of all, good article, thanks for casting a light on the issue!

    Second off, mind changing the picture at top of the article to something else? Perhaps a picture of people signing? It's all about ideology, and we'd like to steer it away from the concept that the deaf are defined by the assistive devices used to boost hearing. The deaf aren't defined by their loss; they're defined by their culture, language, identity that developed as a result of that loss. Through that loss, we gained so much more.

    Last, but not least; I'd like to correct something you said in the article:

    "One advocate has even pursued a class action lawsuit. (A law firm turned down his request for representation; he says he's soldiering on himself.)"

    Not pursued-- that implies past tense. 'Is pursuing' is more accurate. As for the law firm turning it down; it wasn't a problem since I had two other law firms contacting me regarding representation. I'm currently in the process of discussing with them about the case, then I'll be making the final selection of which firm will represent the case. In other words; it's already a given that there definitely will be legal representation. There definitely will be a class action lawsuit-- there's no question about it. As dramatic 'soldiering on himself' sounds, as much as that appeals to me, I'm not quite soldiering on alone. ;)

  • CCAC

    Gotta have full captioning - it's our "ramp" for equal communication access. Advocate for captioning universally. Thanks to Mike Chapman and many others who are pushing equal rights.

    CCAC is all volunteers; we advocate for quality captioning inclusion, and not only online, in life. Join us if you support the mission - www.ccacaptioning.org