Behind the Fight to Improve Netflix's Closed Captioning

Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix's 'Queer Eye'

The streamer embraces crowd-sourced corrections to "closed caption fails" as a flare-up over omitted swear words in 'Queer Eye' provokes activist ire.

As Netflix accelerates its programming push with an multibillion annual warchest, some activists are claiming that the streamer isn’t paying close enough attention to its closed captioning system.

In June, the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) contacted Netflix lawyers over complaints from Queer Eye viewers that the platform’s captioning of the show was omitting swear words that were not bleeped out in the audio track and deleting whole sentences. NAD's action comes after the group filed a lawsuit in June 2011 that resulted in a settlement requiring the streamer to adequately caption its library by 2014 and all content for four years. "We asked them to ensure that the captioning on Queer Eye is at the same level of accuracy as we had negotiated in the original consent decree, which had expired in 2016," Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO and director of legal services for NAD, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Since the Queer Eye controversy erupted in June, Netflix has committed to fixing captioning on the show's first two seasons, restoring swear words as well as full sentences taken out of the show's subtitles. How the series' captioning came to be fixed, experts say, shows how captioning can easily go wrong, and how social media users and advocates are helping to address still-rampant closed captioning errors in the "Peak TV" era.

Rosenblum is clear on the issue. "It is our position that if a vulgar word is spoken, then it must be captioned," he says. "Deaf and hard-of-hearing people deserve to have the exact same access to every word that is heard by everyone else — without any exception."

Netflix has an in-house team that oversees the captioning and subtitling of its content, and also works with vendors across the globe. But mistakes do occur: Censoring swear words, for instance, is not company policy. "We do have requirements for closed captioning to ensure as much of the original content is included as possible," a Netflix representative told THR. "Truncating the original dialogue is limited to instances where reading speed and synchronicity with the audio are an issue."

But "vulgar" words being omitted isn't the only issue, however. A simple search of "closed caption fails" on social media yields many small — and large — captioning errors on shows. On a larger scale, last year Marvel and Chris Pratt came under fire after a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 trailer was posted on Facebook without captions featuring the star requesting that fans turn up the volume and watch it "without the subtitles." Pratt later posted an apology in sign language on Instagram. 

"I’ve heard that a lot of consumers are still having problems with captions; captions which are covering faces or action, captions that don’t appear in real time with the dialogue, captions that are inaccurate, that are slow or missing, lack of captions for musical lyrics, and, on some services, the lack of captions on older titles," says Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is herself deaf. (Matlin led a campaign — the "Billion Words March" — for closed captioning on the Viki streaming service earlier this decade.) 

Netflix's enforceable commitment to adequately caption has expired, and in the time since NAD sued, the legal landscape has shifted. A lawsuit against CNN for not captioning videos uploaded to its website brought word from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that claims under California's Unruh Act could be trumped by First Amendment-protected editorial discretion without a showing of intentional discrimination while Hollywood studios beat a lawsuit in 2016 alleging the non-captioning of song lyrics in movies and TV shows amounted to civil rights violations. While the FCC has captioning rules for broadcasters, Netflix escapes such regulation as a streamer.

From productions' perspective, good captioning can be time-consuming and costly. Karasch & Associates, whose accessibility division provides captioning for the likes of PBS and A&E, among others, estimates typically six hours of work per one hour of television. For prerecorded shows like Queer Eye (as opposed to live shows), an average quote for a company like Karasch, which provides verbatim text transcription, blocking and placement and exporting to preferred file types, among other services, would be about $350 to $400 per half hour. 

As a result, some producers try to cut corners on captioning, according to Ian McDonald, business manager for the WGBH Media Access Group-West, which captions for broadcast and streaming television. Low-cost captioning providers can use contractors rather than in-house staff, rely more on transcribing technology than human labor and do their business offshore, he says.

Short production timelines can also result in shoddy captioning. "We see production timelines shrinking and deadlines becoming more harsh for turnovers, and that's where we feel that some things can be lost because you don't have the proper amount of time to produce the show," McDonald says. 

When viewers see mistakes, Netflix encourages them to hold the streamer accountable. One tool for reporting errors is the question mark button on the bottom right-hand corner of a video when it is streaming. In Queer Eye's case, feedback from NAD and social media led to a relatively quick response from Netflix. And, in general, social media has become a powerful tool for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to draw attention to shoddy captioning.

"Having that social media sounding board is making great strides for [the community], more than they had before," Karasch technical manager Fred Gasser explains. "Before, it was writing letters to the FCC; now they can tweet the FCC, the producers, Netflix." 

In late June, for instance, one of Queer Eye's hosts, Karamo Brown, promised to "bring up this [closed captioning] issue internally & wont stop until something changes." America's Next Top Model champ and onetime Dancing With the Stars contestant Nyle DiMarco, who is deaf, also recently made headlines when he tweeted about poor closed captioning in movie theaters, prompting a response from AMC Guest Services.

Matlin, who is also vocal about captioning issues on her Twitter handle, said that if she were to work with Netflix, "I would just make sure that my contract for any film or series that I sign on for must be captioned. I would also like to be a part of the captioning process to make sure it fits in artistically with the performances."

For those networks and streamers that want to be proactive about optimizing captioning, closed captioning companies suggest that producers prioritize captioning instead of leaving it to the last minute or skimping on a low-cost captioning provider that may use more machine work than human labor. Gasser adds that producers should care more about caption placement to improve readability. "Placement is the art behind the science," he said.

Matlin is even offering her service to TV networks and streamers who would like more guidance on the world of closed captioning. "I would be glad to hop on board with any of them — Netflix, Amazon, iTunes — to help them in any area they have questions about captioning, just like I did with broadcast TV back in the '90s," she says.

Netflix, meanwhile, is embracing crowd-sourced corrections to its captions, with a spokesperson stating that it values "getting feedback from our members and our partners in the deaf community from around the world so we can fix mistakes and be responsive to concerns."

Eriq Gardner contributed to this report.