Netflix Is Tone-Deaf As It Announces 80% Captioning Achievement

Netflix Logo with closed caption that says "Closed Captioning Not Available"
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On Wednesday, Netflix put out an announcement on its blog that it has “reached its captioning goal for 2011, when more than 80% of the hours streamed in the US were of content with captions or subtitles available.” This, according to Netflix, was up from 40% in June and 60% in September.

Nice number. Wrong metric.

With its Qwikster fiasco, and its clumsy attempts at increasing its pricing plans, Netflix has demonstrated a consistently ham-handed approach to its sizable home-viewing market. In that context, its announcement of the 80% captioning goal is a perfect example of how Netflix says one thing while its target market says another thing.

If you read Netflix’s announcement closely, it says captions are available on 80% of the hours streamed to its audience. Not whether captions are available on a movie. Or whether people actually watch captions.

So if you watch a very popular movie several times through video streaming, and it happens to have captions, then the total number of minutes viewed all count toward the 80% goal. But view a movie that does not have captions, and it does not count. In other words, Netflix’s metric is skewed toward popular movies, which typically include new releases.

The metric the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is looking for: how many instant-watch movies and shows have captions. In this case, the number is 50%.

In the first comment below the blog announcement, Mike Chapman – who, along with Phlixie and FeedFliks, maintains a list of captioned Netflix instant-watch movies on his site – pointed out this discrepancy. He headlined his comment with “Netflix Lies!” and scolded Netflix for its attempts to mislead deaf consumers.

Netflix’s reply to Chapman’s post was telling in its tone-deafness to the deaf community:

The 80% is based on the content that people actually watch, and my specific language is precise and correct: “more than 80% of the hours streamed in the US were of content with captions or subtitles available” because we have focused our effort on the content that gets a lot of viewing.

So, Netflix focuses its effort “on the content that gets a lot of viewing”!

This comment is rich in contradiction. A major element of the home-viewing experience is the ability to pick any movie you want, and view it anytime in the comfort of your own home. Netflix grew by leaps and bounds for years on its ridiculously simple business model: pay a cheap monthly subscription, and we’ll mail you a DVD and you keep it as long as you like. Netflix’s key value proposition bears repeating: pick any movie you want, and view it anytime. Not “content that gets a lot of viewing.”

Netflix was long aware of the encroaching threat of instant video streaming, and to its credit, made proactive efforts to counter this threat by setting up its own instant-streaming business. Yet while its strategy was there, its execution was not. As a result, as Netflix alienated its viewers with its Qwikster fiasco and its unpopular pricing increases, other video content providers such as Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes invaded Netflix’s pioneering value proposition: pick a movie anytime, and view it anywhere for as long as you like. In mid-2011, Netflix’s stock sailed to nearly $300. Within 4 months, which included the Qwikster fiasco, it fell to $64 and is now treading water at the $100 mark.

Deaf viewers want the comfort of knowing that the movies they picked – whether it is this year’s popular drama “The Descendants” or a rarely viewed Western movie from 1952 – have captions. It is a major inconvenience when you click “Play,” wait a few minutes while the credits roll, and then the dialogue starts, only to find out there are no captions.

Netflix now provides viewers the ability to search for movies with captions. Yet this feature does not assuage the deaf community’s desire for equal access to the movie database. Hearing viewers can pick any movie from the movie database, because they can understand the dialogue. Deaf viewers do not have that luxury.

So why should deaf viewers care if 80% of streamed minutes have captioning available? They do not measure caption availability by that metric. All they want to know is, “Is THIS movie captioned?” Period.

The most useful metric, in this case, is the number of movies and shows in Netflix’s catalog with captions. According to Mike Chapman, that number is 52%. If foreign movies – which typically have subtitles – are not included, this number drops to 46%.

Gabe Gagliano, a Tech of the Hub blogger, put it succinctly:

Netflix appears to subscribe to the 80-20 rule or the Pareto principle. The 80-20 rule serves businesses well most of the time. As a way to prioritize which titles to caption, focus on the most popular titles. However, judging success on accessibility shouldn’t be measured by the 80-20 rule. Accessibility needs to be 100%. While 80% of the hours streamed is a significant milestone, it’s not mission accomplished. On top of that, the long tail of content is one of Netflix’s differentiators. Ironically enough, looking at the numbers by the “hours streamed” metric is biased on some level. Some titles were watched less often since they weren’t captioned to begin with.

Rule of thumb: make sure that the metric you are pursuing is what the target market measures you by. Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers care that they should have access to any movie they want to see. The most appropriate metric is how many movies in your database are captioned.

This is yet another example of Netflix’s continuing inability to listen to its customers. Netflix is being sued by the National Association of the Deaf for failing to provide adequate captioning for its deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers on the instant-streaming plan. With DVDs – which typically have captions available – fading from the popular consciousness, captions have to be provided on the instant-streaming equivalents, but that requires entering the captions all over again for technical reasons. When Netflix introduced its instant-streaming-only plan at a reduced price, and raised the prices on all its DVD plans by one dollar, there was fury in the deaf community over the fact that they would be forced to choose a more expensive DVD plan because of the need to view captions. Activists likened the price increases to a “deaf tax,” a powerful term that had resonance in the deaf community.

Netflix’s prior communications with its deaf market on these topics were sparse, and when they did announce their progress on captioning, delivered very little information that was of use to deaf viewers.

In the same blog post announcing its achievement of the 80% goal, Netflix goes on to say:

Our goal is to provide more and more content with captions; however, viewers should expect the gap on the last 20% to narrow more slowly than in 2011, since it includes a large number of titles that are rarely watched, so each hour of captioning added adds less and less to the overall metric.

This is a convoluted way of saying “only 50% of our instant-watch catalog is captioned.”

The more appropriate blog post by Netflix would have been, “We have hit the 50% mark in the number of instant-watch movies with captions. While this is a milestone in itself, we have much to do to ensure that the last 50% is captioned. We welcome input and feedback from the deaf community as we work hard toward meeting the 100% goal in our Watch Instantly catalog. We do not care if that is mandated by law. We care that you, the deaf community, have access to any movie you want to see.”

That would have resonated better with the deaf community. Unfortunately, until this is achieved, Netflix is going to face roadblocks not only from its deeply distrustful deaf viewers, but also from the rest of us who have been shortchanged by Netflix’s price increases, its missteps on Qwikster, and its ham-fisted attempts to head off competition in the instant-watch space.

4 Comments on "Netflix Is Tone-Deaf As It Announces 80% Captioning Achievement"

  1. Thanks, Michael for the great article (I actually didn’t even notice that Neil Hunt, himself, had replied to my post!) I just replied to his post adding my “2 movies” example and adding this additional reply:

    it took almost TWO YEARS for Netflix to get HALF of its catalog captioned. and you are saying it will take even LONGER to get the second HALF captioned?? How long does the Deaf & Hard of Hearing community have to wait for EQUAL access? another THREE years? FOUR years??


  2. They always do work on closed captions and subtitles. Take their time do not push them to do everything faster because they have lot of new ones coming in and have to set up captions and subtitles. They do not have many staff working there. So please be patient with them.


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