A personal response to Reed Hastings, Co-Founder & CEO of Netflix

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Written by: Sam Joehl

Dear Mr. Hastings,

Today I received your personal apology in my in-box where you apologized for coming across as lacking respect and humility with the announcement of DVD and streaming separation, and for the respective changes in price. You then went on to explain that Netflix needs to become great at doing new things that people want in order to adjust to changing customer demands by making the leap of success in DVDs to success in streaming. You then went on to explain that streaming and DVDs are being split into separate businesses, and that DVD rental will occur under the brand of Quickster.

I originally joined Netflix for the vast array of content that was available. One reason I held off on joining it for so long was that I wanted to make sure that a service I was patronizing with my business had content available which included audio description of key visual elements for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Fortunately, one of my friends had a Netflix subscription and he successfully rented two or three films which included the audio description track on the DVD because they were produced by Sony Pictures and Universal Studios, two of the three film studios which have committed to including audio description tracks on the DVDs for which the track was created for movie theater viewings. This, combined with the availability of streaming content, was enough to convince me to sign up for a 14-day trial, and I am still a member today.

My experiences with Netflix were mostly positive. I found the website itself to be mostly accessible, although the player used for streaming ran on the Silverlight platform so I couldn’t detect or interact with any of the player controls using my screen access software. I do know that Silverlight does have support for providing the necessary accessibility information to the assistive technology that I use to read the screen, and that a Silverlight media player can be made accessible.

In July of this year, significant changes were made to the Netflix site which made it no longer possible for me to add titles to my queue or play streaming content. I was fortunate to stumble across this note on Facebook containing workarounds for adding titles to my queue and playing my streaming content. I applaud the customer service representative referenced in that note for having the knowledge to provide screen reader users with those workarounds, and to Netflix for providing him with that knowledge. The workarounds enabled me to continue enjoying Netflix content so that I wouldn’t have to cancel my plan for lack of value.

With your recent announcement to have a separate charge for streaming content, I am now faced with answering the question of what value I get from your streaming service. Your company has committed to providing subtitles for 80 percent of your streaming content by the end of the year. Currently 30 percent of streaming content is available with subtitles, and you have made subtitles available on Apple I-devices from within your app since May. While I applaud the efforts your company has undergone to accommodate users who may be hearing-impaired or who may be experiencing language barriers, your company has done little to provide products which accommodate customers who are blind or visually impaired. The note I referenced earlier mentions that the Netflix app is accessible with VoiceOver – the screen reading technology built into the iPhone. As I have heard that the app has been less accessible in the past, I commend Netflix on improving the accessibility of their iPhone app. But all of your supported platforms need to be accessible to the extent that they can be made so. Accessibility at your company would involve three components: (1) The website for accessing Netflix services, (2) the media player used for streaming content, and (3) the content itself to be provided via multiple modalities to accommodate the needs of different customers. This is no different than having multiple language audio tracks and allowing the user to switch between tracks.

The separate fee for streaming, the smaller catalog than what is available on DVD, the lack of accessible website and media player, and the lack of inclusion of the audio description content is making the streaming option less and less compelling for me. If you solve the last two problems, I will continue to remain a customer of the streaming business. If you choose not to make your interfaces and content fully accessible to people with disabilities, then I cannot in good conscience continue to patronize you with my business.

You said in your letter that your company needs to become great at doing the new things people want, and that you need to make the leap from successful DVDs to successful streaming. You also said that now is the time for better communication between you and your customers. To those ends, I challenge you to create the most compelling streaming service that is accessible to all of your customers. When I speak of compelling service, I mean an end-to-end solution that takes the needs of people with disabilities into account at all layers of your company’s operation, from employees to products to content to helpdesk support to documentation. Experts in the field of accessible information technology stand ready to assist you in the implementation of a complete accessibility strategy.

I anticipate purchasing smartphones and tablets in the future which are accessible to people with disabilities. Soon I will eventually own an accessible television set-top box thanks to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 which may allow for streaming of Internet content to my TV. I know that the AppleTV interface which includes a fully-featured built-in screen reading application already allows for accessible NetFlix streaming to a TV. For these reasons I see the value in having a content streaming service provider. I will most likely pick the one with the best content selection that allows for the most accessible experience. I hope you are in the running among my choices.

Respectfully,
Sam Joehl

1 Comment

  • jpgreer
    September 22, 2011

    People tend to forget about Netflix on Windows Media Center for Windows 7. It is probably one of the most accessible options for watching Netflix movies. Of course anyone using any of the paid screen readers like Jaws or System Access may be surprised to find that they perform less than optimal in Windows Media Center. However, NVDA works quite well with the Netflix app in Windows Media Center. As far as the audio description of movies? I honestly don’t care much for it. Being a bit of an audiophile, I just do not like how audio description is produced. Many of the movies have the soundtrack pulled down so far with the descriptive audio that it ruins the movie experience for me.