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Five minutes of Fame at DOJ Hearing

December 17 2010 | by


Department of Justice Hearing, Washington, D.C. (12/2010) (with captions). Suzanne appears at 178 minutes speaking to the Department about the issue of online video accessibility.

The Department of Justice hearing went really well; thanks to everyone for their support. Michael and I arrived in the afternoon to a rare Washington snowstorm, grabbed a quick bite at Corner Bakery and then headed over to the U.S. Access Board, where the meeting was being held. Access Board helps create guidelines for the accessible design of buildings, equipment, technology and more. I ran into David Capozzi, executive director of the Access Board and was able to give him a copy of my paper.

Suzanne Robitaille at the DOJ hearing

The hearing room was smaller than I expected it to be; there were four panelists including John Wodatch, chief of the Disabilities Rights Section at the Department’s Civil Rights Division. I spoke for five minutes, and hadn’t prepared any comments in advance because I was so busy getting the white paper out the door.

Michael Janger at the DOJ hearing

So I wrote up something quickly on the ride down and of course didn’t have a printer but was smart enough to bring a flash drive on the hopes that someone at the DOJ would print it out for me, and that happened at about four minutes to 2pm – just in time. Here’s what I said to the DOJ:

The Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 is a great step in the right direction for the 54 millions of Americans with disabilities. However it is not enough.

The problem is that most emerging online formats are not included in the new law, including popular programing like Webisodes, Netflix streaming movies and consumer-generated videos on YouTube, where 35 hours of videos are uploaded every minute. While NBC’s Hulu, for example, now has to provide captions for Web TV shows like Glee, hundreds of other online-only channels get a free pass.

The Web captions dilemma has drawn the attention of the panel, and rightly so. We ask that you look closely at how TV, cable and satellite providers are migrating more of their programming onto emerging online formats where captions are not mandated. Cable and satellite providers, in an attempt to combat rising subscriber losses, are now giving their paying subscribers “free” access to their online movie and video libraries.

No industry understands legal loopholes better than movie studios. For years they’ve petitioned against having to provide captions on movies shown in movie theaters. No surprise then, when Sony Picture Entertainment launched, Warner Bros. founded and Epix, a third player, is owned jointly by Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and Lions Gate Entertainment None of the content on these Websites offer captions, but the companies claim to be working on them.

Companies that are seemingly innovators in the streaming media space don’t necessarily fare much better. Netflix, which offers an Internet-only movie subscription service plan, says it’s working on captioning its Internet movie library, but has dragged its feet for years. Even Hulu and YouTube both have Web channels featuring original content, but captions don’t appear unless the content creator voluntarily provides them.

Netflix also raised the price on its DVD by mail plan (which have captions) and reduced the price for its Internet-only plan (which don’t), which the deaf community is calling a deaf tax.

While it’s good that your panel raised a red flag, that doesn’t mean private sector companies that create videos and other programming for use online should be regulated. Some companies already make good faith efforts, which the deaf community appreciates. More companies should take the time to learn about the benefits of accessibility and the do-it-yourself tools and captioning services available to help them.

Captioning gives companies an opportunity to make their content findable on search engines, which will drive more customers to their sites, and can lead to better advertising opportunities. Businesses that innovate with captions and other features will enrich the user experience for the disabled, aging population, non-English speaking viewers and others. Loyalty — and profitability — will follow.

Once a cottage industry, emerging online formats now have the potential to lock out a huge marketplace of content for the deaf and hard of hearing population unless new regulation and innovation spurs more businesses, including the emerging online programmers, to embrace accessibility.

Waiting for the hundreds of online-only providers to do the right thing with no other incentives will take too long. That’s the message that you should convey to the public, and that’s what businesses and content creators should think about going forward.

A parting thought for those still on the fence. The Annoying Orange generated more than 56 million monthly views in October — more traffic than some cable channels get — and it is exempt from the captions law. While some say this Web series isn’t worth the time, this is a decision that deaf and hard of hearing people should be able to make on their own.

I got especially passionate when talking about the movie studios; they will never change unless they’re forced to. Neither, probably, will the cable companies. But I still have faith that companies that create content online will see the light and do the right thing. Of course, for more on the business case for emerging media accessibility, and what we can expect going forward, read the white paper here.


  • ncmacasl

    Thanks for your continued hard work with this!! Hope they heard your message!!

  • ncmacasl

    Question. Are Broadcast TV Programs and Made-for-TV movies that appear on Netflix (or Hulu or other provider) still required to be captioned/subtitled under the new law? Or, does the fact that it is shown onNetflix somehow bypass this law??

  • ncmacasl

    lol! I just noticed I am a footnote (well, my blog is) on your white paper (p. 8). I am honored!!!

  • admin

    Hi Mike,

    You are doing great stuff with your Netflix blog, thank you so much. To answer your question, the answer is an unfortunate no. Netflix is out of the FCC’s scope.

Related posts:

  1. DOJ Promises “Renewed” Focus on Disabilities
  2. Yahoo!, Congress, DOJ Chart New Course for ADA
  3. Netflix To Caption Some Web TV and Movies
  4. Do Movies Deserve Captions?
  5. Read Our White Paper on Video Accessibility!