Q&A: Accessible on-demand video services

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Friday, 11 July 2014 11:18am

Media Access Australia spoke with Dr Katie Ellis, Senior Research Fellow at the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University ahead of her presentations on Netflix, audio description and captioning, and representations of disability in the media at the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference in Melbourne.

The conference, being run at Swinburne University’s Hawthorn campus from 9-11 July, tackles a diverse range of issues in the media and communication space, including issues around disability and media access.

Media Access Australia: You’re presenting on “Netflix closed captions offer an accessible model for the streaming video industry but what about audio description?” Is the service -  which is rumoured to be coming to Australia - accessible?

Dr Katie Ellis: Following an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) complaint against Netflix for their lack of captioning, Netflix must introduce captioning on 100 per cent of their content by October this year. National Association of the Deaf commentators in the US are describing the mandate as potentially creating ‘a model for the streaming video industry’. The title to my presentation highlights this new commitment to captioning in order to raise the issue of the importance of audio description for a number of other viewers. The presentation does discuss captioning as a positive accessibility feature that Netflix is now embracing but urges Netflix to go further by introducing audio description which is some cases is available but not always licensed with the visual content.

How do these features compare with existing on-demand content services?

Both Australian and overseas on-demand services argue that their ability to provide accessible options such as closed captions is constrained by whether or not studios create these features in the first place. In January this year I looked into the accessibility options of Australian on-demand services and found a very scattered approach, some provided accessibility in the form of closed captions, some had no accessibility policy at all and others made captions available when it was available to them. For example, EzyFlix and BigPond movies did not support closed captioning, Quickflix did have a question regarding captions on their FAQ page with the response, ‘We are working with the studios to provide Closed Captions in the future’. The availability of captions on Fetch TV depend on whether or not they were included in the original broadcast. Therefore, the free-to-air content and some of the US shows will be captioned, but nothing else. However, the service does allow viewers to only show channels where closed captioning is offered. Captions are available on some Foxtel on demand content however this is not clear on the Foxtel website. While Foxtel has a page on their website dedicated to ensuring closed captions are turned on they don’t specify whether they are available on the on demand content.

What was most surprising about that research was that none of the Australian commercial free-to-air channels (7, 10 and 9) provided captions on their catch-up services. In fact, given that content must be captioned for broadcast television, the captions were stripped for online viewing. However, since the time of the initial research 7 has introduced captions on catch-up which is really promising. I have an article coming out in Media International Australia on this in November.

Do you believe Netflix might act as a positive model for on-demand content services?

I’m hopeful that Netflix will act as a positive model, particularly in terms of providing captions on 100 per cent of content, however there are issues around captioning that need to be addressed in a general sense such as accuracy of captions, and moral judgements made regarding captioning confronting scenes and dialogue. As a translation captions need to provide a different but equivalent service.

I also argue in my paper that Netflix’s focus on niche audiences offers great potential for audiences of people with a variety of disabilities. When niche audiences are aggregated they actually become quite large and so in the new TV climate small audiences are worth targeting. If Netflix can target audiences according to personalised recommendations like ‘Dysfunctional Family TV Dramas’ and ‘Suspenseful Buddy TV Shows’ then I think the availability of accessibility options like audio description could work as another targeted recommendation which then hopefully could result in more of this accessibility feature becoming available

The presentation’s title also alludes to a lack of audio description in the Netflix service. Is this the case?

As far as I know Netflix does not offer audio description. However, groups such as The Accessible Netflix project are strongly urging Netflix to introduce this feature. While Netflix haven’t committed, another service called TalkingFlix has been created by Crossway Media Solutions to provide a worldwide entertainment platform for people with vision impairment to listen to audio described movies and television series. TalkingFlix will not produce original audio description, instead it plans to license the already existing content to make it available to audiences with vision impairment for a monthly fee of around $10. In an interview with Cool Blind Tech, David Timar, CEO of Crossway Media Solutions described TalkingFlix as potentially solving a ‘global problem’ because the service will allow people with and without vision impairment to watch TV together without disturbing the other with their specific viewing preferences.

What are the barriers to the inclusion of audio description and how might these be overcome?

There are two main barriers to the provision of audio description on an on demand service like Netflix. Firstly, a lack of understanding about its importance and availability. The Accessible Netflix Project comment on their website that one of the main barriers they’ve encountered with trying to get audio description on Netflix is the lack of understanding about whose responsibility it is to make the audio description. When audio description does exist, studios and on-demand platforms are unsure about how this can be licensed for viewing.

Technical incompatibility is often cited as another potential barrier. This was also the problem with Netflix originally stripping captions from online content, their streaming software was incompatible. In my paper I argue that the lack of audio description on Netflix is an example of what Elizabeth Ellcessor describes as the‘familiar story’ of the introduction of accessibility features in new media technologies eventually becoming available through activist critique of industry apathy towards disabled audiences. I suggest that greater competition through platforms such as TalkingFlix and an industry focus on niche audiences could potentially change this ‘familiar story’.

You have a second presentation, “Disability in the Buffyverse: Fanfic, cliff notes and the digital novelisation of television”. What themes will that be covering?

This presentation looks at the ways disability themes emerge in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show which at first glance is not about disability at all. I’m interested in the ways themes related to social inclusion and exclusion are introduced in the show itself (e.g. how Buffy is ‘disabled’ in the social world of high school due to her vampire slaying responsibilities and how Buffy and her mother Joyce discuss this using the language of disability social justice) and then how people take up these themes in the extensive online literature around this show in wikis and fanfiction for example.

This paper also looks at the ways digital media and new forms of television are offering people a way to access these shows anew or experience them for the first time. Once upon a time television was ephemeral, if you didn’t catch the initial broadcast it was gone forever but now people build up extensive knowledge bases which then results in television characters growing and evolving. This has great potential for the representation of disability because characters can be shown as coming to terms with their disability (e.g. on Friday Night Lights) or it moves to the background and is just another part of the character without necessarily being emphasised (e.g. Breaking Bad). I’m really interested in this in the context of Buffy because over both its broadcast history and since through fanfiction disability is introduced so often that it can potentially become a more familiar aspect of life.

What are your thoughts on representation of disability in the media?

I’m very interested in representations of disability in the media and I’m especially interested in how popular culture and particularly popular television shows which people binge watch on DVD box set or downloadable content introduce disability debates and encourage people to discuss disability issues in ways that the news media perhaps does not.

There are generally two images of disability that we see in the media—the inspirational person with disability overcoming all challenges with a positive personal attitude and the burden on society. In the last week we’ve seen a sustained demonisation of people with disabilities in the media with people on the DSP being referred to as bludgers in several papers.

With the closure of Ramp Up and the discontinuation of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner role I am very concerned about the where representations of disability in the media in this country are headed. However, it is very encouraging that people with disabilities are mobilising against this through alternative media forms such as the Save Ramp Up movement on Facebook and Graeme Innes’ new initiative through The Attitude Foundation to broadcast disability stories on ABC TV.

Final thoughts?

The discussion regarding disability and the media has come a long way in the time that I’ve been involved in this area but there is still a long way to go. While people are advocating and agitating for change using digital platforms, as we know these are not always accessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

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