How Netflix alienated and insulted its deaf subscribers

The streaming video giant still can't manage to competently produce closed captions

Netflix Skyfall

In less than a decade, Netflix has assembled an unprecedented library of streaming film and television and organized it with a sophisticated recommendation algorithm that hooks viewers into lengthy binge-watching sessions. But for all the service's strengths, one aspect is still decidedly twentieth century: The bizarrely low standards for Netflix's closed captions, which continue to alienate subscribers who are deaf, hard of hearing, or simply have difficulty understanding dialogue.

By and large, closed captions on Netflix's instant streaming service are loaded with nonsense characters, transcription errors, and dialogue so implausible that it's hard to believe they're actually transcription errors. Many obscure the opening credits, line up poorly with spoken lines, or linger into uncomfortable stretches of silence.

"Report to the new Quartermaster for ur documentation," reads a caption attributed to M in 2012's hit 007 flick Skyfall.

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On an episode of ABC's cult sitcom Better Off Ted, the captions block out actual foreign language subtitles with the tautological block text "SPEAKING JAPANESE."

A caption on the pilot episode of Fox animated sitcom Bob's Burgers says that a cell phone is playing Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," but only a generic ring tone is heard.

And so on.

Above all, the captions are strikingly inconsistent — even between episodes of the same show. Some identify each speaker with a name, like a script, while others are placed artfully to convey the same information, like dialogue in a graphic novel. Others contain the bare text, or even less, as they inexplicably skip words or whole sentences.

Blogger and law student Sam Wildman grew so bemused by the captions that she wrote a sharply worded open letter to the streaming giant, criticizing the service for inconsistent and inaccurate transcriptions. In particular, Wildman (who is hearing impaired) noticed that the captions on Breaking Bad censored coarse language — even mild terms like "balls" — that was completely unedited on the actual audio track. "If someone is watching a show with subtitles they ought to have the same sort of experience," she wrote. "If someone says 'Kill that motherfucker!' then shouldn't everyone be able to have the same shocked reaction to the word 'motherfucker' as anyone else? Why should people using subtitles be spared?"

The letter resonated. "Netflix subtitling really gets my goat!" wrote one commenter. Another called the captions "so awful I feel I could do a better job myself, and that's especially bad considering the fact that I feel the need to use subtitles in the first place."

Netflix has long had a troubled relationship with viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. In 2011, the National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix for what was at the time a sparsely captioned streaming collection, which the advocacy organization said violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Netflix filed to dismiss the case, which was denied; later, the two agreed on a timetable that will make captions available on all of the site's streaming content by later this year.

The agreement is vague, though, on the quality of those captions. "As we push for 100 percent captioning, our next battle will be the quality of the captioning itself," said National Association of the Deaf CEO Howard Rosenblum.

Many viewers who rely on closed captions are glad they exist at all, and contrast Netflix positively with Amazon and YouTube. But others, hearing impaired and not, are puzzled by the obscurity of some of the errors ("ALL STATIONS PREPARE FOR A HAPPY BIRTHDAY" reads one of Commander Riker's lines, inexplicably, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) An entire Tumblr is devoted to awkward Netflix captions — some containing actual mistakes, and others that completely fail to capture the tone of a scene.

TV distribution is a complex process that involves many entities shuffling around different assets of a final product, of which closed captions are only one small part. Insiders also point to differing file formats and competing video standards as reasons that wires get crossed. To make matters worse, Netflix spokesperson Joris Evers says that even when a Netflix subscriber reports an error in the captions, the company doesn't necessarily hold the rights to fix it.

That doesn't sit right with Wildman. "Netflix has no reason to disclose how many times people contact them about it," she said in an interview with The Week. "And I wouldn't be surprised if people just weren't sure how to get in touch with them."

And even though Netflix has greatly expanded its captions in recent years, it's galling that there are still so many errors. Compared to the cost and complexity of producing a show or film, accurate and standardized captions should be easy — the most prominent errors could be fixed on a single read-through by a competent copyeditor. Moreover, high-quality captions benefit many viewers who are neither deaf nor hard of hearing: Language students, non-native speakers, people with sleeping roommates or in crowded pubs.

Ineffective communication may be a factor. Some viewers complain that it's difficult to read the default font color and drop shadow of the captions, but as many may not realize, both can be customized in the "Subtitle Appearance" menu. Unfortunately, the option is squirreled away under "Your Account" on the Netflix homepage.

It's surprising that a company as data-savvy as Netflix hasn't found a technological solution to his problem. A few months before it signed off on the agreement with the National Association of the Deaf, Netflix experimented with crowdsourcing the captions to certain titles — a strategy that could have run into legal pitfalls of its own, according to some. Now, says Evers, most captions are acquired from the same place as the video content: "They are typically the same subs or captions that would be used on traditional broadcast TV."

In fairness to Netflix, the company is far from alone on this problem. Primitive closed caption systems were developed in the early 1970s, and the non-profit National Captioning Institute was founded in 1979 to develop technology and industry standards. In the 1990s, Congress passed legislation that required most televisions to support broadcast captions. But the technology industry has struggled to bring effective subtitles to the web. In 2010, YouTube announced an experimental service to automatically generate captions with speech recognition software, with often-absurd results that were mocked online. (Fortunately, the owner of a video can correct or remove the automatic captions if they're not up to par.)

While I can't speak for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing, I've been watching Netflix with captions enabled for a few months, and every error pulls me out of the experience like a typo in a hardcover novel. There may even be something about the serial-viewing spirit of Netflix — and the fact that you can rewind to scrutinize and obsess over weird captions — that makes its errors seem more prominent.

"Most of the time when you watch Netflix, you binge-watch it," says Wildman, "so error after error starts to grate on you."

Update: The day after this article was published, a representative from Netflix contacted the author of this piece with an additional comment: "While we don't have the rights to make edits to subs/captions we do, in fact, request redelivery of subtitles or captions when we discover errors. The titles in your piece are now under investigation."

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