Marlee Matlin on the FCC's Feeble Attempts at Online Closed Captioning

Longtime lobbyist fights for the deaf and hearing impaired to enjoy binge-watching sessions just like the rest of us.

Ms. Matlin (Getty)
Ms. Matlin (Getty)

For some of us, it’s all too easy to get lost in a seven-hour Netflix marathon, but for the deaf and hearing impaired, getting through a single episode of an online TV show can be nearly impossible. Captions on the web are often inaccurate and unreliable — but new regulations going into effect this week will hopefully change things.

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Last week, Betabeat met with Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who’s been deaf since she was 18 months old. She told us a frustrating story from three years ago, about the time she’d tried to stream a CNN video about the unveiling of the Hellen Keller statue at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

“Here we are streaming it on my computer, and there’s the Hellen Keller piece, and I thought, wait — theres something wrong with my captions,” Ms. Matlin said through sign language. “[There were] no captions. How ironic that it’s Hellen Keller, the leading disability advocate, and it’s not even captioned for someone like me to be able to understand.'”

In 2010, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CCVA) into law, stipulating, among other things, that anything shown on TV with captions also had to be captioned when re-shown on the Internet. Two years later, the FCC issued a set of guidelines outlining exactly which types of TV programming are required to be captioned on the web, and the deadlines by which the captions have to be added. Entities that fail to comply with the FCC’s guidelines and deadlines could be subject to fines and other penalties — but only if viewers log complaints about them to the FCC.

But although online videos became equipped with closed captioning, people have been complaining that the captions are often still inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable. We mentioned to Ms. Matlin, for instance, that we’d checked out the closed captioning on one of her shows, The L Word, on Netflix the night before. We’d noticed that in group scenes, where multiple characters were talking at once, the captions didn’t pick up everything that each character was saying.

“You know what that’s called?” A disappointed Ms. Matlin asked us. “Laziness. Sloppiness. Carelessness.”

New Rules, Starting This Week

Thankfully, this spring, the FCC is adopting a detailed new set of quality standards and recommended practices for the captioning of online videos, “to ensure that caption viewers have full access to television programming,” according to the rule. The new regulations go into effect this Wednesday, April 30.

The FCC is stressing that captioning of online content should embody “accuracy, synchronicity, completeness and placement,”:

“(1) accurately reflect what is in the program’s audio track by matching the dialogue, music, and sounds, and identify the speakers; (2) are delivered synchronously with the corresponding dialogue and other sounds at a speed that can be read by viewers; (3) are complete for the entire program; and (4) do not obscure important on-screen information and are not obscured by other information on the screen.”

“It’s just unfortunate that it took this long to understood that there are needs of 35 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States alone, and millions of people outside the United States,” Ms. Matlin reflected. “At some point we need to understand that everybody deserves access to broadcast content.”

When the new regulations are in effect, the FCC won’t be actively monitoring the closed captioning in each individual video — they’ll just investigate potential infractions through a complaint-driven process. Entities that repeatedly violate the guidelines may receive fines or other penalties.

“I’m not the captioning police, but I’m one of the people who depend on them so I’ll keep an eye out,” Ms. Matlin said. “I’ll make sure that they’re doing the right job captioning.”

The Billion Words March

Despite the new rules, Ms. Matlin still seemed wary about the future of online captioning. Streaming site will only be penalized, after all, if enough complaints are made. There is one site, though, that she said is doing an excellent job —

In conjunction with the timing of the FCC’s new regulations, Ms. Matlin is supporting the Billion Words March, a year-long initiative by streaming site to make online TV shows and movies accessible and reliable for deaf and hearing impaired viewers around the world. Viki’s project aims to crowdsource the subtitling and captioning of — as its name suggests — one billion spoken words in the videos on its site.

“I just didn’t know that this model of consumer activism could exist,” she said, describing the day she heard about Viki’s campaign. “It was almost too good to be true… I jumped right on board immediately.”

At the time we spoke with Ms. Matlin, she said Viki users had already captioned 600 million words. Ms. Matlin thinks the initiative has been so popular because people are tired of waiting around for companies to make their videos accessible.

“People watch and want to be entertained, so if they have a hand in making the captions happen, then why not?” Ms. Matlin said. “They’re jumping on board, they’re making choices and they’re creating different languages. They’re tired of having people who have the power make the decisions for them.”

There’s Still Work To Be Done

Despite the FCC’s new rules, and initiatives like the Billion Words March, there are still huge arenas left inaccessible for hearing impaired web users.

Sites that air user-generated videos, like YouTube, aren’t required to caption their content, unless that content was shown on TV with captioning. That’s not the case for the majority of addictive cat videos out there. YouTube, to its credit, does have an automated captioning program, but Ms. Matlin said it’s horribly unreliable.

“I’ve stopped watching machine-generated captions — they’re so pointless,” she said. “It’s based on the sound of language. It just doesn’t come out right. It’s a joke.”

Ms. Matlin also remembers how back in 2008, when she appeared on Dancing with the Stars, she was unable to watch a promo for the show online. That problem still isn’t fixed, either — the FCC’s captioning rules don’t apply to “video clips and outtakes.”

Ms. Matlin is also waiting to see whether Netflix, which was sued by the National Association for the Deaf in 2010 for not having sufficient closed captioning, will improve its accessibility. When Netflix settled the lawsuit, they agreed to have 100 percent of their videos captioned by this year. Ms. Matlin confessed she’s been really wanting to watch Orange is the New Black, but is worried about the quality of its captions.

“We have a lot of work still to do,” she said.

Marlee Matlin on the FCC's Feeble Attempts at Online Closed Captioning