Netflix Closed Captions and the 80-20 rule

March 2, 2012

Netflix recently touted their progress in captioning TV shows and movies on their streaming service:

In mid December, we reached our captioning goal for 2011, when more than 80% of the hours streamed in the US were of content with captions or subtitles available.  Thanks to hard work from our captioning team, we made significant strides from 40% in June and 60% in September. (Netflix Blog – Feb 29, 2012)

At first, I was surprised. I thought Netfix was saying that 80% of their streaming catalog was now captioned. Reading it a second time, I realized Netflix was measuring the hours actually streamed by customers not the number of titles or total hours of content in the catalog. So, if I watched a captioned movie four times and another uncaptioned movie once, 80% of my viewing hours had captions available.

In fact, if you look at it by the numbers in the Netfix catalog, it turns out that 47% of the content is captioned by total running time. 55% of the content is captioned by counting the total number of TV episodes and movies. Still a long way to go as Netflix states:

Our goal is to provide more and more content with captions; however, viewers should expect the gap on the last 20% to narrow more slowly than in 2011, since it includes a large number of titles that are rarely watched, so each hour of captioning added adds less and less to the overall metric.

Netflix appears to subscribe to the 80-20 rule or the Pareto principle. The 80-20 rule serves businesses well most of the time. As a way to prioritize which titles to caption, focus on the most popular titles. However, judging success on accessibility shouldn’t be measured by the 80-20 rule. Accessibility needs to be 100%. While 80% of the hours streamed is a significant milestone, it’s not misson accomplished. On top of that, the long tail of content is one of Netflix’s differentiators. Ironically enough, looking at the numbers by the “hours streamed” metric is biased on some level. Some titles were watched less often since they weren’t captioned to begin with.

Since Netflix is recognized as a market leader, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) sued Netflix in federal court last year for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). NAD asserted that Netflix violated the ADA by not providing closed captioning “for most” of its streaming content. However at this moment in time, Netflix is ahead of its competitors when it comes to closed captioning their content. Amazon Instant Video and VUDU only have a small number of subtitled movies but no closed captioned content. iTunes has been making progress with new TV content added to the service and captioning a significant number of movies.

HBO, who Netflix considers a serious competitor, does not currently support captions on its HBO GO streaming service. However, I’ve learned from HBO that closed captions will be included in a future release of HBO GO.


In the US, almost 90% of streaming viewing is done using a player that is capable of displaying captions or subtitles (some older BD players, TVs, and set-top boxes are not capable, and unfortunately their firmware cannot be upgraded). Almost all Netflix-ready devices in distribution today (including all the game consoles, phone apps, tablet apps, TVs, BD players, Apple TV, and the Roku set-top box) are capable of rendering captions.

Here’s Tech of the Hub’s list of Netflix devices that are closed-captioned enabled.

Update: Another good resource to see the total universe of captioned titles on Netflix is the one Mike Chapman maintains.

Netflix Closed Captions on Apple TV

Netflix Closed Captions on Apple TV

Tags: closed captions, HBO, iTunes, Netflix, VUDU

One Response to Netflix Closed Captions and the 80-20 rule

  1. Mike Chapman on March 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Also is a wonderful resource. It lists all the titles (and individual TV episodes) in a searchable format showing what has captions on Netflix.

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