Accessible Content for All: Accessibility in Australian Screen Media
September 16, 2021
‘Are you girls up for watching something on Netflix tonight?’
‘Sure, dad, but only if we can have the subtitles on.’
‘But it’s in English! Who uses subtitles when it’s your own language?’
So went a recent conversations with my teenage daughters. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a friend in New York had had exactly the same conversation with his teenage daughters! It turns out that there’s a worldwide trend among Gen Z viewers to watch ALL streamed content with closed captions. But why? When I asked my daughters, they told me that they wanted to make sure not to miss anything being said. This notion being as foreign to me as it would be to most people my age, my continued incredulity earned me the in-vogue ‘Okay Boomer’ put down! But the realisation that this is a worldwide phenomenon led me to dig deeper to find out exactly what’s behind it.
Closed captioning is a relatively recent development, dating back to the early 1970s, when Julia Child’s The French Chef made history as the first television program accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Fast forward to 2006 when a UK study found that 7.5 million people in the UK (18% of the population) used closed captions. Of that 7.5 million, only 1.5 million were deaf or hard of hearing. Already 14 years ago, viewers were obviously using closed captions for reasons other than hearing loss. Fast forward again to 2019 when the following tweet by @deafgirly was retweeted more than 72,000 times, liked more than 76,000 times and quoted by almost 5000 people:
‘Subtitles aren't just for deaf people. Lots of my hearing friends use them, too. If you're hearing and find yourself using subtitles on Netflix and TV and would quite like them at the cinema, please retweet to help normalise their presence! Big thanks #DeafAwarenessWeek’
So what are the benefits of closed captions? First and foremost, of course, it’s about basic comprehension: it’s often difficult to catch what actors are saying if they’re mumbling in character, if they have an unfamiliar accent or there’s a lot of ambient sound – in an action movie for example. The quality of the sound may also not be great, particularly when viewing on flat-screen TVs or computers.
But it’s also about comprehension on a deeper level. In 2015 Oregon State University in partnership with 3Play Media conducted a study across 15 institutions with a total of 2,839 respondents which showed that closed captions assist students in comprehension, retaining information and maintaining focus. It found that more than half of students use captions for comprehension, more than 60% of students with disabilities said captions were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ helpful to their learning, while almost 65% of students who ‘often’ or ‘always’ have trouble maintaining focus said captions were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ helpful to their learning. The most common reason, however, students use captions was to help them focus, which benefits the whopping 75% of respondents who reported that they struggle with paying attention in class. It’s no surprise then that 87% of educational institutions add closed captions to at least some video, that 98.6% of students find captions helpful, and 71% of students without hearing difficulties use captions at least some of the time.
And then there’s multitasking: members of Gen Z may be using up to five screens at a time: a laptop for homework, a tablet to video chat with a friend, a phone to text or check social media, a smartwatch to track steps, and the TV to watch Netflix. The speed with which this new generation can flip between texts, emails, phone calls, and social media is astounding.
The benefits of closed captions don’t start and end with Gen Z either. The 2016 census revealed that 3.5% of Australia’s population – that’s 820,000 people – self-report as speaking English ‘not well’ or ‘not at all’. Closed captions can help this cohort not only to understand what’s being said, but also to improve their proficiency in English. In fact, everyone benefits from closed captioned content: people are watching more and more content in public on their smartphones or tablets and rely on on captions to engage with the content without disturbing others. For the same reason, captions are commonly used on televisions in public spaces such as gyms, doctor’s surgeries and airports. It’s no surprise then that the majority of respondents to a survey conducted by 3Play Media over the last four years anticipate needing ‘more’ or ‘significantly more’ captioning services while almost none see their needs decreasing.
And the benefits don’t all flow one way. Googlebots and search engines can’t see video or listen to audio, but they can read captions and transcripts, so adding these features helps video content rank higher in search results. As a result, companies posting video content add closed captions as a means of search engine optimisation (SEO) and boosting traffic to their site.
But what of the original target demographic: the estimated 285 million people globally who are vision-impaired, of whom 39 million are blind? The Attitude Foundation commissioned some research to find the answer to this question in the Australian context. How well are the estimated 450,000 Australians who are deaf or hearing-impaired being served?
The Australian media landscape was fundamentally transformed by the 2015 entry of subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) services to compete with traditional broadcast TV, broadcaster video-on-demand (BVoD) and ad-supported video-on-demand (AVoD) services. AVoD, BVoD and SVoD have overtaken traditional broadcast media in the popularity over the past five years thanks to their growing affordability, quality of content and, particularly, convenience. This has been facilitated by an enormous increase in the number of Internet-capable screens in Australian households – not only TVs but also computers, smartphones and tablets.
Unsurprisingly, Netflix is the most popular service, with 12.5 million subscribers –almost half of the Australian population – followed by Stan with 3.7 million, Disney Plus with 2 million, Amazon Prime with 1.6 million and YouTube Premium with 1.4 million, with with Foxtel Australia’s combined PayTV services garnering 4.8 million subscribers. But, incredibly, none of the 10 or so SVoD services currently available in Australia was launched with an accessibility policy and consequently Australians with disabilities still face significant barriers in accessing VoD.
Nonetheless, Netflix is the indisputable leader in the provision of accessible screen media content. Netflix has provided closed captioning on 100% of its programming since 2014, largely as a result of litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. From its launch in Australia in 2015, it was possible to watch every available program on Netflix with closed captioning. It’s now even possible to change the appearance of closed captions and subtitles, including adjusting font, text size, shadow and background colour. It’s no wonder that Netflix has been described by one commentator as ‘a deaf person’s utopia’.
ABC’s iView, launched in 2008, is the most accessible BVoD provider in Australia: at the time of writing, there were 915 programs available on the platform, of which 620 had closed captioning available. In addition to its wide range of closed-captioned content, iView also clearly signposts content available with closed captions via a dedicated program menu.
The Seven Network’s 7Plus was the first commercial BVoD service in Australia to provide closed captioning when it launched in April 2014. It currently provides closed captions for about a third of its catalogue of 13,004 programs. However, the information available for consumers regarding which programs are captioned is woefully inadequate. Unlike ABC iView, 7Plus doesn’t have a filtering option for closed-captioned content. Instead, viewers have to select individual programs to find out about accessibility options. This lack of clear signposting of captioned content shows not only a shameful disregard for the needs of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, but also a blindness to the emerging preferences of Gen Z.
From a legislative standpoint, it was only in 2012 that amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Act required Australian broadcasters to caption television programs aired on their primary channel between 6am and midnight – and they were given a generous three years to achieve this. But these regulations don’t extend to the multi-channels offered by free-to-air broadcasters. Programs broadcast on a free-to-air multi-channel require captions only if the program has already been broadcast with captions on the main channel. Even worse, the regulations don’t extend to SVoD or BVoD services, regardless of whether a program has previously been broadcast with captions. It’s clear that with the rapid developments in technology and media formats, legislation is not keeping pace. This leaves commercial broadcasters, in particular, free to avoid the ‘additional expense’ of providing captioned content.
The other, related accessibility feature that can greatly enhance the viewing experience of dramas and documentaries for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities is audio description (AD), which describes important on-screen visual elements. Australia remains the only English-speaking nation in the OECD that doesn’t offer widespread AD content on broadcast television. It is only in mid-2020 that the ABC and SBS have begun to offer AD following a funding package from the federal government – testimony to the fact that government support is essential to the provision of accessible services. Even so, as of June 2020, both ABC and SBS are now providing only up to 14 hours per week of AD programming, and there is still little to no extension of this to their BVoD services. It goes without saying that Australia’s commercial broadcaster BVoD services have shown no interest in providing such a service.
In contrast, AD was made available to customers of Netflix one month after the service launched locally, marking the first time Australian audiences had access to a reliable and consistent AD service. What’s more, the Netflix website makes it relatively straightforward to navigate to a large catalogue of AD programming, which allows further filtering for genre categories. Together with its comprehensive closed captioning and its compatibility with accessibility devices such as screen readers, voice-command software and assisted-listening systems, Netflix’s accessibility vastly outperforms other SVoD, BVoD and AVoD services currently available in Australia.
It wouldn’t be hard for Australia to do better, but it will require buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders. Content creators need to be more proactive in producing content that is easily accessible to all. This will only be achieved by considering accessibility from the outset rather than as an afterthought, which makes it technically difficult and prohibitively expensive. Distributors – broadcast TV, SVoD, BVoD, AVoD – need to publicise available accessibility features and make them more prominent, searchable and filterable. Federal government needs to work with all stakeholders to develop forward-looking strategies, then enact legislation that will improve accessibility and provide a clear framework for future media production. Government funding and incentives at both federal and state levels would boost accessibility in both the production and distribution of screen media, as shown in the recent introduction of AD to ABC and SBS.
Disability community and advocacy groups, and Australians with disability should be central stakeholders. The inclusion of these stakeholders is essential in creating content, legislation, funding and information to improve access to the screen media content across various platforms. Unfortunately, this is not something that these groups can effect without the support of other key stakeholders.
In an ideal world, there should be a regularly updated chart of all screen media services that clearly details the accessibility tools available on each service and the percentage of content available using features that are indispensable to hundreds of thousands of Australians and reflect the strong preferences of the next generation of viewers. This level of transparency would not only immediately benefit people with access needs, it would also provide an impetus to improve the variety and quality of available tools, as well as the amount of content covered by them.
The disability communities can agitate about the ‘right’ thing to do, pointing to the UNCRPD, the Australians with Disabilities Act and rulings from the Human Rights Commission. But, as is often the case, the impetus for change is more likely to result from market forces: there would be public outcry from the vast majority of Netflix-bingeing young viewers if programmes were not provided with closed captioning! As commercial broadcasters catch on to this, change will come quickly, not only to AVoD, BVoD and SVoD services, but also to live broadcasting.