Accessible online video – a plea to Government and Australian broadcasters

It’s a ritual in my home that every Monday night my wife and I get our weekly news and current affairs fix on the ABC by watching Four Corners and then Media Watch. One of the things I really enjoy about Media Watch is that it looks at some of the misinformation that turns up in the media and its likely impact on how people understand important issues. So it was with some irony that a few weeks ago Media Watch had a segment about the failings of Media Watch itself when it came to the provision of closed captions on the ABC iview catch-up TV service.

Apparently when Media Watch was put on iview that week, the Media Watch captions were mixed up with another show which not only led to confusion, but the displaying of some very coarse language without warnings. While on the surface this issue is humorous, the saga of getting accessible video onto the public broadcaster continues to be a challenging one. With recently announced job cuts and a reallocation of ABC funds, it’s a good time to consider how the provision of accessible video in Australia is going and why we still haven’t reached the quality or availability of countries like the US and the UK.

For people not familiar with the accessibility features required for online video content, it essentially comes down to providing two things. The first is captions, which consist of text on the screen for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired to read, that describes audio content such as dialogue and sound effects. The second is Audio Description (AD) which provides additional narration that describes the more visual elements of a video. While captions, and to some degree AD, are prominent in cinema and on home video media such as DVD and Blu-ray, it’s a different story when looking at on-demand services.


Public broadcasters – ABC and SBS

The arrival of captions to ABC iView in 2010 and SBS on Demand in 2012 was warmly welcomed, but in 2017 improvements have stagnated.  In addition to the error discussed earlier, there’s still often a delay in captions being provided and perhaps the biggest issue of all is that live television streaming such as ABC News 24 still has no function to display captions, despite the feature being available on broadcast television.

For people who are blind or vision impaired, the journey to access has been a long and difficult one. With the ABC committing to a broadcast TV trial of AD on the primary ABC channel in 2012, it seemed like a promise had been made by government to make AD happen.  However the promise soon became a suggestion, leading to an AD trial on ABC iView in 2015 and now it seems the idea of access has disappeared completely from public broadcasters for people who are blind or vision impaired.


Commercial-free catch-up TV online accessibility

Looking to free-to-air (FTA) commercial networks of Seven, Nine and Ten and their catch-up TV services of Plus7, 9Now and TenPlay respectively, the accessibility features on video vary significantly. Plus7 has captions on some shows but are not available on its live streams, and neither 9Now or TenPlay have captions at all, stating that while there’s no captions now, they are ‘working on it’. Ironically, this information is in their frequently asked questions page suggesting that it’s so popular that they need to tell people it’s not there, but not popular enough it would seem to actually put them in.


Subscription video services

So with only three of the five FTA networks offering captions in their catch-up TV services, and none with AD, it’s worth looking at subscription video services. Research conducted by Curtin University and funded by the Australian Communication’s Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) looked at the popular subscriptions services of Netflix Australia, Stan, Presto, Quikflix and Foxtel’s on-demand service. The standout services are Stan which has some limited captioning options, as well as Netflix Australia, with the latter being the but the clear winner due to having a large amount of captioned content and a fair bit of AD content as well.

So out of all the offerings at this point of time, people who are Deaf or hearing impaired can only use the online video services of ABC iview, SBS, Plus7, Stan and Netflix, while people who are blind or vision impaired can only effectively use a limited selection of Netflix content.


So why is Netflix the winner?

A logical question to ask is ‘Why is Netflix so good with captioned videos and the only one that has AD?’ The answer is legislation – but not in Australia. As Netflix is a US-based company, it is subject to the USA’s 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). As such, Netflix is required to make its content accessible to people in the US, and the captions and AD have flowed to Australia as it’s based off the same interface and distribution model.

Our closest legislation is the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1992, which as the name suggests hasn’t been updated for a while. In fact, the Act has no specific reference to ICT access at all. Readers of this column over the years will know that this is a massive area of frustration, as there’s no doubt that effective government policy makes a big impact as highlighted here. In my opinion, the time has come for the DDA to be updated to include ICT accessibility – that means WCAG 2.0 compliance and video accessibility.


How can the networks fix the issues?

Most networks would not be aware that simply hosting videos without captioning or audio description means that their websites fail to comply with WCAG 2.0 requirements. In fact, even the websites that provide captions to pre-recorded video but not live streaming video fail, at Level AA. In answer to the question ‘what should networks do?’ the easy answer is ‘just put captions and AD on’. However, I appreciate it’s not that simple, as many networks respond that there are technical issues in doing so, particularly in live captioning and AD. As such, it’s worth taking a moment to address these two issues from a technical standpoint.


Let’s get technical

Firstly, it’s often argued that it is difficult to put closed captions into a live stream. As the stream is largely ‘locked’, i.e. it’s hard to transmit additional data such as captions with it, let alone toggle them on and off for closed captions. This is a valid point and important to acknowledge that live captioning is difficult to support in the same way it is done on broadcast television. However, there is a simple solution – create two streams.

Given that the infrastructure to live stream TV is already in place as noted with ABC News 24, Plus7 and 9Now all streaming TV channels, it’s a simple task to just stream two versions of the channel – one as it is now, and the other with open captions, i.e. the captions are on the screen all the time. To do this would require little effort, the infrastructure is already in place and it would resolve the problem with little additional cost as the captions are already being broadcast on TV, just not online.  Once in place, the user would just select from ‘live stream 1 – no captions’ or ‘live stream 2 – captions’. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

For AD the argument is often made that its difficult to embed two audio soundtracks into one online file.  Again I’m happy to accept that this is an issue.  While many video formats support multiple audio tracks, I appreciate trying to sync two audio tracks in the one online video can be tricky.  When the BBC was presented with this issue, it took a similar approach to the captioning solution above – instead of trying to put two audio tracks in one file, just create two files – one with a standard audio track, and one with an audio described soundtrack whereby the user can select the one that want to play.  With large storage becoming cheap, it again becomes a cost-effective solution and can make sure that audio described content is readily available – if the will to do it on a permanent basis ever exists again beyond Netflix.


Next steps are needed

So my plea to broadcasters is to please address your access issues: we know the captions and AD exist, they’re just not online. If you don’t have any captions yet, put them on. If you do have captions on your pre-recorded information, put them on live streaming. As for audio description, please let Australians access the AD content that’s already available for our favourite US and UK television shows by simply including it in your offerings. Finally, I make yet another plea to our political leaders – the DDA is 25 years old, and that seems like a great anniversary to finally update it to include WCAG 2.0 requirements and video accessibility.