Falling on deaf ears: Video-on-demand providers 'ignoring deaf Australians'

By Frank Chung | 15 August 2013

Leading video-on-demand and catch-up TV providers are failing to provide captions for the hearing impaired, according to a report from Media Access Australia. The not-for-profit is calling for voluntary compliance, or failing that, government regulation.

ABC and SBS provide captioning on their iView and On Demand services, but the commercial providers are falling behind, the report says, with only iTunes offering captioning on some content. It says the commercial free-to-air networks and other providers like Foxtel and Quickflix have taken no action.

Report author Chris Mikul said in a statement: "There clearly needs to be some regulatory enforcement to achieve online video captioning as has happened in the US. Legislation introduced in the US means that anything that has been shown on TV with captions has to have captions if it's distributed over the internet."

In June 2011, the US National Association for the Deaf sued Netflix for failing to provide captions. It won the case, and captioning has since increased to 90%. Netflix reached an agreement with NAD to provide captions on 100% of its content by 2014. In the ruling, the judge rejected Netflix's motion that the Americans with Disabilites Act only applied to physical businesses.

"In a society in which business is increasingly conducted online, excluding businesses that sell services through the internet from the ADA would run afoul of the purposes of the ADA and would severely frustrate Congress's intent that individuals with disabilities fully enjoy the goods, services, privileges and advantages, available indiscriminately to other members of the general public," Judge Posner said.

In its release, MAA quotes Brisbane man Barnaby Lund, "who is deaf and uses a tablet computer to watch entertainment programs, and was keen to try Foxtel on his iPad": "However I found the service inaccessible due to the lack of captions and decided I would no longer subscribe.

"The lack of captions is very frustrating and discriminates against the one in six Australians who are hearing impaired. Frankly I think online TV service providers are silly not to provide captions – it's a great way to attract and retain loyal customers."

Foxtel spokesman Bruce Meagher told AdNews: "No, [captioning] is not currently supported by our system but it is under active investigation. Unfortunately it is quite a complex issue because there are multiple devices and multiple participants in the supply chain, so they all have to work. It's not a simple answer, not a one-size-fits-all solution."

A spokesperson for Yahoo!7 said: "Plus7 does not currently have the ability to show closed captions and at this stage there are no firm plans for when closed captions will be launched." Ninemsn and Network Ten have been approached for comment. Ezyflix declined to comment.

Quickflix chief executive Stephen Langsford said it was a much-needed report to raise the profile of the issue: "While there are some complications and hurdles with closed captioning that relate to in part technical issues with the device – there's a lack of standardisation presently – in other cases it's issues to do with content owners and the studios themselves.

"That said, directionally I think there is a move to get this in place. We'll be embarking on some endeavours later this year – it won't be across the board but it will be in the right direction. In the meantime, the majority of our content is provided through our DVD business, which obviously supports captioning."

MAA said if Free TV and ASTRA don't voluntarily provide captioning for their online services, it would seek government action. MAA chief executive Alex Varley said: “The US legislation has shown the way. We believe that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and our regulator, ACMA, should take that knowledge and use it to design a comprehensive and effective system for Australia.”

ACMA was unable to comment on public policy due to being in election caretaker mode. The MAA report, Captioning on Video-on-Demand Services: It's Time for Australia to Catch Up, was launched at the M-Enabling Conference in Sydney yesterday, a joint event held by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and Telstra.

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