I often can’t hear sound effects in shows and movies, so I use captions so as not to miss anything. Because I mostly use Netflix to stream (I don’t have a TV; I sometimes rent/borrow DVDs), I was curious to know how other VODs (video on demand [streaming] services) fared in the application of and care taken with subtitles and captions. It’s not just the D/deaf/hard of hearing who use captions for same-language film and video, and access to global programming is making good subtitling a must more than ever.
This is my survey of captions and subtitles on some common VODs. As in my survey of cinema access for the D/deaf in Toronto, when I contacted these companies about problems I was transparent, with Reel Words info in the email signature. I also approached this as an everyday user. Where necessary, I paid out of pocket to get the services. I’ve assigned a star rating system for overall application and treatment of captions/subtitles.
D/deaf people who sign have the right not to have their hands and arms restrained because it prevents them from communicating. What I discovered is that these providers might as well be blindfolding the D/deaf/hard of hearing. They can’t see the content that isn’t provided for them.
Google Play ★
I had heard that The Silent Child (2017) was on Google Play for $2.99, and I obviously wanted to see it for the storyline and use of ASL. It turned out the film could only be placed on a wish list for when it was made available on Google Play in the future. YouTube Movies says it is not available there.
I searched for some free movies and tripped upon the sociologically fascinating (although perhaps not intentionally…)The Creators, made “in conjunction with YouTube” and boy, did that ever show!
It was a sort of advertorial documentary about young YouTube phenoms in the UK making their living through that platform, all with different…talents. Here are two I’d never heard of, Niki and Sammy, branded online as NikiNSammy. Not quite sure what their talent was aside from having sprung from the same egg, but let’s focus on the captions as they were used throughout the doc. Here’s an example of YouTube’s idea of accessibility:
NikiNSammy’s captions were split, both left-aligned (which is not helpful for twins…) and these two titles containing 36 characters was only up for one second. Now, the most current Netflix guideline is 20 characters per second. While it was a UK-filmed short doc, the spelling used was both British and American. The worst offence was that it seemed they really did use YouTube automatic captioning because there were constant errors, such as captioning react for interact and real for raw. The caption bands jumped all over the screen, as if placed for the cool factor—with absolutely no understanding of what captions (CCs) are intended for. A professional titler was not employed, and no QC person could have reviewed it. Clearly the producers didn’t give a hoot about accessibility. Thoroughly appalled at Google/YouTube.
Amazon Prime Video ★★
The Silent Child wasn’t listed on amazon.ca’s Prime Video.
So I decided to take the 30-day free trial to watch another example and promptly cancelled to avoid the $79CAD/yr fee.
I decided to go with Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010), a choice influenced rather arbitrarily by my recent participation at an axe-, knife- and archery-target place. I wasn’t sure if the captions used were made for this stream or were from a previous production and distribution. As is common, the captioner was not credited.
The font was crisp white on black below the screen or with a shaded dark band for a top line placed above that on the film. But there were great inconsistencies: [ALL SCREAMING] vs only [CHEERING] when all were cheering; poor and inconsistently styled offscreen speaker IDs; poor choices in deciding on the most relevant sound effects, such as dogs barking but not men yelling in attacks or falling off walls; the King of France (should be king if not using a personal name); Jimmy boy as a name (should be Jimmy-boy or Jimmy Boy). In short, the usual problems that I see constantly on Netflix. Visually accessible but not textually accessible, which is a huge part of the game! As I often comment, unedited titles cause reader stumbles, which cause the user to lose concentration and thus comprehension.
Here, two and a half thousand should have been used, but space was tight; however, space could have been made by forcing an earlier and split title. Not great, but Russell Crowe did not say “twenty-five hundred.”
Good points: the ability to rewind OR fast forward by 10 seconds, and three subtitle format options (the fourth was black on black…).
Netflix’s captions and subtitles were the raison d’être for this survey. I was curious to know if other VODs were as ineffective and disregarding of Deaf/HoH needs as Netflix. (You can read a lot about my feelings on Netflix on my website on the blog tab and see various #CraptionFails on the Gallery of Fails tab.) No point in repeating it all here, but suffice it to say that despite (or perhaps because of) having the monopoly on VOD, this machine has grown too big to have serious quality control of captions and subtitles. The failure of the Hermes Test, the lack of qualified QC (“Master-Level Quality Control”) editors, and the low pay leave it just a step above YouTube craptions. Really and inconsistently poor. I’ve only had about four or five examples in my portfolio of well-done captions with this provider. See my website and blog posts for many illustrated examples of the problems and how they should have been avoided.
Sundance Now 1/2★*
This check started with a series of emails to customer service because I couldn’t find the CC/ST button on the interface for some movies I wanted to review. Also, the overall platform is clumsy and annoying to navigate; the only good point is the ability to rewind 10 seconds but—unlike Amazon Prime—there’s no option to fast forward by increments.
The customer service rep kept insisting they were there if only I would use a supporting device and look in the right place, but they weren’t. His final email said in part: “I checked Off the Rails and Julia, and unfortunately we don’t have captions available on those two titles right now—- [sic] while the majority of our content is now captioned, we’re still working on updating our catalog.” Now this may be true. I didn’t check all of their catalogue. But my random selections of movies did not have captions.
Incidentally, I used the search box to find films with the keyword deaf and was provided with 13 suggestions on death content.
The usual problems with missing words, wrong words (Yeah for Yes) and letters, speaker IDs, punctuation. Overall it was very sluggish. Read: inaccessible. Note these captions, all of which lagged, from Broken Flowers (2005) with a terrible line break.
The worst part was that, no, I didn’t read all 17 pages of the Terms and Conditions. I had stopped at the part that says [sic]: “7 day free trial, you can cancel anytime” which, due to the lack of copy editing, I read as you had seven days free and you could cancel anytime. NOPE. $59.00 down the tube. You can “cancel” your subscription but you’re free to watch for the rest of the year. In other words, you’ve cancelled a renewal next year. The only reason I’m not freaking out about the $60 is that I thought This Close, even at six episodes (and six “discussions” post-watch) was worth the money, especially if season two comes out within my subscription year.
So overall, the captions were terrible. But here’s the thing: for This Close, they were flawless. Not only that, they dealt with a bilingual show creatively and effectively. This show saved them from getting no stars.
Sub-survey: This Close as an example of captioning as it should be.
Here the captions are placed according to the speaker:
White letters and, in fact, a different font are used for the ASL translation, and white on dark grey bands is for the oral dialogue. This is particularly helpful if you’re like me and following both sets of captions, listening to the hearing speaker and trying to follow the ASL or watching the fictional ASL interpreter sign and interpret! It was actually doable with this thoughtful crafting.
And when they do have to include an offscreen line, it’s correctly IDed and formatted to the side.
And sidebar, I loved this scene where Michael’s hands are restrained as he is removed from a plane, and Kate says they can’t do that to a deaf person:
So, really clear, almost always perfect renditions of the audio (except for the odd Yes for Yeah). Although, I’m not sure what’s up with the three lines, especially when they are so short. Perhaps to ensure the titles are large enough to be visible for low-vision users, since Sundance Now doesn’t allow viewers different caption-display options?
This tells me one thing. VODs basically don’t care about Deaf/HoH access unless the executive producers (and guest stars like Nyle DiMarco in this case) of the show are Deaf and get the need! So, yay them, but that’s a fairly easy win, and boo Sundance overall.
Back to the show’s “Now The Discussion” segments. These featured cool young people sitting around a lovely studio drinking beer and chatting about the previous episode. Thankfully they had a Deaf/HoH participant in one I watched, and they also interviewed Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman after the last one. BUT but but: they applied post-production dubbing of an interpreter to overlay on the signers’ speech, rather than using the real-time interpretation they’d have had to facilitate the convo with the hearing people. So it struck me as a bit disingenuous: a bit like sim com, trying to create a false syncopation or an aversion to causing unwanted pauses in group dialogue while the signers’ words were finished being interpreted. Ew. As if waiting for a Deaf/HoH person to be orally interpreted was a problem or awkward. This struck me as ironically ableist/audist.
Also, these chats allowed expletives to be kept in the audio track but then captioned them with two hyphens, which is not only bad practice but also reinforces that the Deaf/HoH audience is not deserving of full and correct content. When characters swore/used vulgarisms in the show, the f-bombs etc. are shown fully spelled out. I thought this was another unfortunate dichotomy that spoke volumes.
As for the show itself, who doesn’t appreciate it when #DeafTalent is used, such as RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy? And the occasional use of loud static and other noises to obscure dialogue reinforces the challenges faced by some deaf people, in case we hearies get complacent in our viewing.
*So This Close gets ★★★★1/2 but Sundance Now itself gets only a half star.
Hulu (star rating not applicable, but see Reel Words home page image)
I’ve wanted to watch The Handmaid’s Tale since the get-go, as it is one of my favourite books. This time I did check the 17-page Terms which do allow for cancellation at any time, for reelz… I wanted to sign up for the $7.99 Limited Commercial plan ($11.99 for no commercials: isn’t that the flipping point of VOD—no commercials?)
I had trouble signing up due to not having a US zip code but a support chat told me “Our services are actually not available outside of the US unless you're a US military member living on base. Would you happen to fall in this category?”
Okay, over to:
CRAVE TV ★★★
Sub-survey: THE HANDMAID’S TALE
I went with the $7.99 monthly after 30-day free trial because I really, really wanted to see the show and didn’t mind paying for month two if I didn’t get through it all. (Who was I kidding? I binged it!)
Sidebar: as I’m sure you know, this was filmed in Toronto and around/near the GTA, so if you’re interested, here are links to the locations details.
If you go to my website home page, you’ll see a screenshot from Hulu from a trailer for the show. I discovered that they hadn’t done anything to address the issues of captioning since it was bought by Crave, and here are some of the more problematic captions as they appeared in Episode 1.
The Handmaid’s Tale has some parts of captioning done right, but then there are the usual inconsistencies that creep in. Sometimes [indistinct radio chatter] is heard and captioned as a very important part of setting and mood for the show, but at other times it is not captioned when clearly heard and significant. This does not provide full and complete access. And that’s supposed to be a standard in this country, but it is not enforced.
The show starts with a bang, with sirens blaring before the first visible frame, but [SIRENS BLARING] only shows for one second (nonstandard practice) and does not continue with the action, even though this is important to set up the mood and story.
This show is often based on the unshared thoughts of the heroine, Offred, and what she does dare to utter aloud. But these are not differentiated. (That’s Captioning 101, by the way.) In this scene, she was mocking another character internally but vocally answered Yes to her.
Below, a character who is losing it says I want my mom. and is comforted by Offred with a gentle Okay. We can barely see this dark scene, so a caption-dependent person might well be confused by the lack of speaker ID.
Netflix’s style guide determines that vulgarisms are to be spelled out (see my discussion of this around the 45-second mark on my Craption Eyerolls series on YouTube), and the same problem arises here. I’m not sure if the captioner wasn’t savvy or was applying their own personal values to not using the spelling cum. Either way, QC should have caught this. Crave certainly lets the f-bombs drop in captions, so I don’t think it was an issue of conservatism.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a new-order society which has retro values. Church bells toll frequently, driven by plot and mood. But I kind of think using thrice is a bit over the top. Since it’s not the first time that church bells toll in the episode, space could have been saved by shortening the subject thus: Bells tolling three times. We would get that they are church bells from episode history, context and connotation.
Sometimes, captions are moved up to avoid covering a speaker’s mouth to make it clear that the person on screen is the speaker. But here Offred is not speaking; Aunt Lydia’s words should be italicized both as offscreen and over an amplification system. It also just looks weird.
Just as we need to see the speaker’s mouth moving, we need to watch Offred’s eyes carefully, as they reflect so much of what she may not say aloud. The cinematography in the series includes a lot of close-ups, particularly of Offred, to make us feel sympatico with her. Here, she is appalled by the speech, but we’re distracted by the titles actually touching her eyes proper rather than pondering her reaction. I talk about the need to facilitate audience immersion, rather than distract, frequently on my website. Breaking or preventing that immersion is one of the main ways to fail the caption or subtitle user, and it’s a key focus in my posts. This scene was made less evocative by careless captioning. And again, this show has been bought and the captions could have been improved by the new provider, but they either didn’t check or didn’t care.
I really dislike the way VODs treat music, songs and lyrics. The presentations are not helpful, the rules don’t make sense, and they’re inconsistent. And they need to change.
Here, for clarity, I would have styled the caption like this:
[♫ You Don’t Own Me ♫ by Lesley Gore]
It’s obvious that it’s playing—by the fact that the caption is there—and it’s obviously a title of a song, as indicated by the addition of customary musical notes. Had the house style not been to use ALL CAPS for sound effects, styling this like I have would have made the text clearer as a title, too.
And now, the pièce de résistance, the type of reason this show is on my home page:
Every musical caption has these—what I can only guess are Unicode cut-and-paste issues. This says We don’t care enough about accessibility to create acceptable captioning for our users.
And this is the crux of the matter. Communication is a right, and bad communication is a breach of that right.
As people in the cultural-content and entertainment industry, people who use captions and subtitles (basically everyone at some point or another) are our everything. The reason we have jobs. The reason we will always have work. And if there is one theme that is prevalent on my website, it is that the audience deserves better, and we should be ashamed of delivering less than excellent. Sure, human errors happen. We do our best. But when we deliver a product at subpar quality because it doesn’t matter to us personally or we are ignorant of issues of accessibility, we fail our fellow viewers.
I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I noted this Gamasutra post for its candour, and it reminds me to try my best to make my work accessible:
“I never have forgot the feeling of of depriving someone of an experience just because I didn't think to add a button”
Ian Holstead, Ubisoft
By providing craptions, VODs are preventing all but primarily D/deaf/hard of hearing viewers from accessing content—analogously blindfolding them.
I think we can do better than an average of 1.7★ out of ★★★★★ in caption and subtitle content on VODs. Industry standards are 95–98% accuracy, and in these five services I have found a 34% rate of success.
Please share this widely. And please leave a comment about your experiences in other countries.
Coming soon: Apps for ASL Learners; Creative Applications of Captions and Subtitles: Yay or Nay?