It’s not just Queer Eye – bad subtitling is a daily problem for deaf viewers

Por Josh Salisbury.

Netflix is at least looking into complaints about shoddy captioning, but virtually all on-demand services treat us as lesser customers.

The ‘Fab Five’ from Queer Eye in the rural town of Yass in New South Wales, Australia. Photograph: Carly Earl for the Guardian


The second season of Queer Eye, the show in which five gay men give out well-deserved makeovers, recently hit Netflix. It’s pure heart-warming escapism – hour-long breaks in which the “Fab Five” make you and their subjects feel good about themselves from head to toe. Less fabulous, though, is the mis-subtitling for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Last week, viewers tweeted about the series’ captions being altered, supposedly for clarity. In other episodes, expletives were censored to protect deaf people’s delicate sensibilities. One of the Queer Eye stars, its culture expert Karamo Brown, told fans that the comments broke his heart, and vowed to put pressure on Netflix for better captioning.

It would be easy to write this off as just another Twitterstorm about a minor annoyance. But the complaint isn’t that subtitles weren’t completely accurate, or even that swear words were being altered. It’s that we as deaf people aren’t being treated as equal viewers.

TV isn’t a very accessible medium when you’re hard-of-hearing. Cameras pan away from actors’ faces, making it hard to lip-read. Background music plays over dialogue, creating a nightmare soup of sound. If you’ve ever found the rapid-fire chat on certain reality TV shows hard to follow (Love Island, anyone?) imagine how much worse it is when you’re deaf. Subtitles aren’t a luxury for deaf viewers. They’re a necessity.

So it’s good that Netflix has responded, saying it is investigating the lack of proper captioning on Queer Eye, and on episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage series. And progress has been made in other areas too.

The deaf charity Action on Hearing Loss has been leading a three-year campaign called Subtitle It!, which has helped spark changes in the law. Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, will soon report to parliament on proposals to enforce captioning quotas for on-demand video, like it does with traditional television. Petitions – such as the one led by teenager Jamie Danjoux that highlights the lack of subtitles on Sky’s On Demand and Go services – have put pressure on broadcasters to take captioning content seriously. But the progress is piecemeal and slow.

In the absence of any strict regulation, video on-demand services continually promise to put subtitles across their shows, without much progress being made. Subtitles vary across providers and devices. A show might have subtitles when viewed on a laptop, but not on a phone. Programmes that air on television with captioning often don’t have them if you watch them days later. A DVD will likely have subtitles, but not necessarily a download of the same show.

Figuring out which programmes are safe to watch is complicated, too. Scanning a TV guide will tell you which shows had subtitles when they were on TV. No such equivalent exists for on-demand services. Three-quarters of deaf people have started watching shows they have purchased or subscribed to, only to find that they couldn’t view them, an Action on Hearing Loss survey found. For full accessibility, it’s not good enough for more shows to be captioned. Consumers need to know which ones are before they buy or subscribe.

It’s hard to shake the suspicion that subtitles would be more prevalent if on-demand providers understood just how vital they were to the 9 million people in the UK with hearing loss. Anecdotally, one acquaintance – who is hearing but has deaf family members – told me about a recent exchange they had when complaining to Amazon Video. They had downloaded seasons of Ugly Betty, wanting to binge-watch themselves into nostalgia. But the subtitles were missing, despite the show having aired with them on Channel 4 and ABC. When they rang for a refund, they were asked: “But why would you need English captions if the show is in English?”

Other times when faced with complaints, the industry says there are technical difficulties that makes the provision of subtitles across all their services hard. But the biggest hurdle is a lack of will, rather than lack of ability. Deaf viewers pay for the same subscriptions as hearing viewers, and we deserve the exact same service. It’s time that all on-demand services provided it, however and whenever the content is viewed. Much like the Fab Five’s subjects, they are in desperate need of a quick makeover.


  • Josh Salisbury is a freelance journalist – @josh_salisbury



Fecha de Consulta: 04 de julio de 2018

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