While an increasing number of movies and TV programs are now becoming available to the public as online downloads, both in Australia and overseas, very little of this material is being made available with captions or audio description.
In the US, it is now mandatory to caption any English-language program produced since 1998 for broadcast on television, and there is legislation in the works to set minimum levels for audio description. There is as yet no legislation covering the Internet. The National Association for the Deaf and other groups are currently lobbying to have the Telecommunications Act of 1996 amended so that it includes provisions for captioning downloadable video. In an article by Andrew Lavallee in the 25 October 2006 edition of the Wall Street Journal, ‘Deaf Web Users Fear Being Left Behind as TV Shows Stream Onto the Internet’, Jim House from Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc was quoted as saying, “It’s like history repeating itself from Internet to TV.” Referring to the many years it took to get TV caption quotas up to their present level, House said he hoped they would not have to wait another 25 years for similar access on the Internet.
Part of the problem stems from the number of different software players available, including Windows Media Player, Quicktime, RealPlayer and Flash Player. While all of these players support captions, they all require them to be in different file formats. Apple’s iPod player, on the other hand, does not support captions, which means that the movies and over 200 TV programs now available for purchase from iTunes are out of the reach of viewers who require captions.
There have been some promising developments, however. In July 2006 AOL, which rebroadcasts some CNN newscasts, began offering some of them with captions. The material, which is captioned by WGBH Boston, includes videos of the day's headlines, current events, new stories and some entertainment content. The ABC and NBC networks are also reported to be investigating online captioning.
MovieFlix, a site with 4,000 movies and TV shows available for download (some of them free, the remainder available for a flat fee of US$7.95 per month) has just started to make open-captioned versions of some titles available. Their site currently lists 44 captioned titles, most of them short films which are available for free. The captioning has been provided by MovieFlix in conjunction with the US government- sponsored Captioned Media Program, whose chief role is to provide funds for the captioning of educational videos and DVDs. See: http://www.movieflix.com/
In the UK, the BBC began a three-month Online Subtitles Trial in December (following on from a previous trial in November/December 2005). A number of programs, including Click (a technology program), Eorpa (a Gaelic current affairs program) and selected new British films are now available for viewing with captions, with more to follow. The purpose of the trial is to test the process, technology and workflow of the system, and audience feedback has been requested. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/onlinesubtitlestrial.shtml
Meanwhile in Australia, BigPond is continuing to work with the Australian Caption Centre to sort out the technical issues involved in supplying captions on downloads. A spokesperson from Bigpond has told MAA that they intend to have at least one title available with captions by April 2007, to test the market here.