McG, executive producer of the TV series “Chuck” and “Supernatural” and director of the movies “Charlie’s Angels” and “Terminator Salvation,” has a new action series out this summer. “Aim High” has a handsome protagonist, Nick Green, who deals with all the travails of adolescent life, exaggerated to make a good action flick. He has a punk-rock love interest, a seductive teacher and a double life as a CIA assassin.
But the Warner Bros. show won’t be available on prime-time television when it begins August 1. It’s only airing on Facebook and is just one of the many original Web series being pushed by big-name and amateur producers alike in the hope of tapping into the huge and growing online video audience.
The show, however, may lose viewers before it even starts. Facebook video does not offer closed captioning, which means 36 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing won’t be able to tune in to the adventures of the teenage spy. Neither Facebook nor Warner Bros. returned requests for a comment.
Last year, President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, requiring that captioned television shows must be captioned online. But there’s a loophole: The law does not require original online programming to be captioned.
“At the same time that the web series industry is growing, web series producers are not required to closed caption,” Jamie Berke, a Washington-based deaf activist wrote in an email. “So deaf and hard of hearing people like myself are largely left out of this ‘new television.’ ”
The specter of government regulation of online content may seem anathema to the free-wheeling Wild West culture of the Internet. Just this week, former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt voiced concern that the Internet is becoming more like the television — vulnerable to regulation and, therefore, to control by governments.
He was referring in particular to governments that tend to clamp down on freedom of speech. But he could just as easily be referring to any of a number of proposed laws in the United States that aim to regulate privacy, data security and access to the Internet.
Berke, who helped push for passage of the first closed caption law in Congress, is trying a new tactic to pressure online producers to use captions: grassroots social media. She contacts Web series producers and actors on Twitter to ask that they install captions, sends directions to those who may not know how to add the captions and petitions tech companies to add captioning capabilities to their sites.
One online video company Berke had been in talks with, Blip.tv, updated its video player this week to add captioning support. Red vs. Blue, a sci-fi series on Blip.tv, can now be seen with captions. Other sites that host video, such as YouTube, have long had a captioning option.
Berke’s not alone in the fight. Sebastian St. Troy, a consumer-rights activist in Texas, launched a Change.org campaign targeting Netflix, which only provides captions on a small portion of its online “watch instantly” titles and does not have a search function to find the captioned movies. Along with a petition, the group is “bombing” Netflix’s social media sites with demands for closed captioning.
Some industry insiders are starting to listen. Jeremy Scott, the editor in chief of Reel SEO, a news site for online videos, took to his blog to write a call to action. Its headline: “Dear brands and amateur video creators: Use the freaking captions.”
If the grassroots effort doesn’t work, a legal route may. Time Warner and Netflix have both been slapped with lawsuits that charge discrimination for the lack of captioning. For better or worse, regulations may permeate the online world after all.