Caption watch:

A screenshot of the Hulu website, showing search results for "cc" content on August 17, 2009

Over the last ten days, the percentage of full episodes and movies with closed captions on Hulu has actually gone down. Overall, that percentage of cc content is embarrassingly low, hovering at around 4.5% for full episodes and 6.5% for movies — and appears to be on the way down.

At a time when so few content providers on the Internet are offering closed captioned content, seems to be leading the way. Hulu not only offers integrated support in their video interface for closed captions but also allows users to limit search results to closed captioned content. It’s not easy to search for and locate captioned content on the Web. Hulu should be commended for making it easy to locate their site’s (albeit modest collection of) cc content.

A screenshot of Hulu search results showing closed captioned episodes.

No other distributor of television-type content on the Internet comes close. Indeed, the list of online providers that do not offer closed captioning is staggering. Caption Action 2, a blog devoted to securing support for “The Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009” (summary of act and full text), found only five major content providers or retransmitters that offer closed captioned content online — and seventy-seven that don’t. Only ABC, CNET, Fox, Hulu, and NBC offer cc content online.

Still, any attempt to include Hulu in a list of closed caption providers must take pains to note that few videos on Hulu are actually closed captioned. Hulu is leading the way at a time when so few providers are offering captions, but Hulu also has a long, long way to go.

Hulu adds new content and removes expiring content daily. I’ve been tracking the changes to Hulu’s content offerings over the last ten days, because I’m particularly interested in 1) what percentage of Hulu’s content is available with closed captions and 2) how or whether Hulu’s cc content is changing as a percentage of their overall content offerings.

The news isn’t good for accessibility on the Web. Over the last ten days, as Hulu has regularly added new full episodes and movies, and removed others that have contractually expired, the percentage of full episodes and movies with closed captions has actually gone down. Overall, that percentage of cc content is embarrassingly low, hovering at around 4.5% for full episodes and 6.5% for movies — and appears to be either static or on the way down. If there was ever an argument for the need to legally mandate closed captions on TV-type content redistributed over the Internet, this is it. Recall that much of Hulu’s content was closed captioned when it was broadcast on TV (because the FCC requires that all new TV content be closed captioned), so we are not talking about content that needs to be captioned from scratch, only retooled for rebroadcast on the Web.

A bar chart showing captioned v. non-captioned episodes on Hulu, Aug 7-16, 2009 .

Captioned v. non-captioned EPISODES on Hulu, Aug. 7-16, 2009 No. of episodes (cc) No. of episodes (non-cc) Episodes (total) Episodes (% cc)
8/7 1275 26286 27561 4.6261
8/8 1266 26403 27669 4.5755
8/9 1258 26539 27797 4.5257
8/10 1256 26575 27831 4.5130
8/11 1253 26683 27936 4.4853
8/12 1288 27659 28947 4.4495
8/13 1289 27712 29001 4.4447
8/14 1298 27820 29118 4.4577
8/15 1299 27855 29154 4.4556
8/16 1299 27849 29148 4.4566

A bar chart showing captioned v. non-captioned movies on Hulu, Aug 7-16, 2009 .

Captioned v. non-captioned MOVIES on Hulu, Aug. 7-16, 2009 No. of movies (cc) No. of movies (non-cc) Movies (total) Movies (% cc)
8/7 37 539 576 6.4236
8/8 37 540 577 6.4125
8/9 37 550 587 6.3032
8/10 37 549 586 6.3140
8/11 37 551 588 6.2925
8/12 37 550 587 6.3032
8/13 38 550 588 6.4626
8/14 38 552 590 6.4407
8/15 38 552 590 6.4407
8/16 38 552 590 6.4407

Closed caption users are at a serious disadvantage on Hulu. Unless Hulu makes a renewed commitment to offering more content with closed captions, I worry that the number of cc episodes will remain dismally low, or even continue to decline.

What can we do?

S. Zdenek

Dr. Sean Zdenek is an associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


3 Responses

  1. Hi Sean:

    Good research. A couple months ago I e-mailed with the following info, which includes tv programs:

    …although you provide more captioned content than most websites, it is still limited compared to the total amount of content available. For example, there are approximately 268 full-length feature films available on Hulu. Only 23 of these are captioned or subtitled. That’s less than ten per cent of content.

    Similarly, 11,241 captioned television episodes are available on Hulu. Of these, 951 have closed captioning. That’s only about 8 per cent of total content.

    Hard of hearing people make up about ten per cent of the population, and polls have shown that close to fifty per cent like to be able to use captioning, both as clarification and as a means of improving their understanding of English skills. I’d like to add that as a teacher in a high school, there is material I’d love to use on Hulu which I both prefer not to use and am forbidden to use in the classroom, largely due to the fact that it is not captioned and therefore not accessible to all of my students, approximately 11 per cent of which need closed captioning. I know that for me, the more material is available, the more it will be used. I’m sure the same will be true for others.

    I thank you for the work you have done so far. I do recognize that Hulu, compared to any other provider, provides the most online captioned content. Apple, for example, only captions slightly more than 1.5% of its total movie content; you provide nearly six times as much (they do not provide any captioned television programs, and Netflix captions none of its online content.) I write this hoping that, unlike other organizations, you see a reason to be proud of that fact and continue the work you began.

    So please remember that while we want more captioning we need to be aware of who’s doing the best job and keep praising them. I know for a fact that there’s a rumor Hulu only added captioning for users at work or at home who needed to watch without sound. There’s no excuse for Apple though.

    One more thing – I want to applaud Hulu’s captioning FORMAT – it’s MUCH better looking than Apple’s!

    We have a Facebook group online encouraging Apple to add CC to all of its media. I can only dream…

  2. Joseph,

    Thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right. Hulu’s leading the way, which is how I put it at the top of that post. No one can really compare with Hulu when it comes to providing online captioned TV-type content. Let’s look to Hulu for a glimpse of what the Web might be like, etc.

    At the same time, the numbers of cc shows remain very low and continue to trend downward. Hulu has twice as many movies now as it did when you wrote your comment and almost three times as many episodes. The percentage of cc content is down from about 10% to about 5% currently. Hulu looks good when compared to everyone else, but that’s only because most everyone else is doing absolutely nothing.

    Ultimately, I think the only solution that will stick is going to be legislation for captioning on all TV-type content distributed over the Internet.