Comedian Mark Thomas takes to the streets in protest against Amazon's lack of subtitles (Updated)

Campaigners aiming to raise awareness of Amazon’s lack of subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing have taken the direct approach this morning: by sneakily putting up banners on Amazon’s headquarters in London. Excitingly, I can now reveal that the person behind it is none-other than the comedian Mark Thomas!

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The proliferation of TV viewing options might be great for giving us a choice of what to watch, but it isn’t always so great if you experience hearing loss. Long gone are the days of being able to reliably bash “888” into Teletext to get subtitles – and instead support for captioning technology wildly varies between devices and services.

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In the case of Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service – until recently known as LoveFilm – there is literally zero subtitles available. Which is bizarre given the vast majority of the content will have subtitle tracks available – all it needs is for Amazon to build their apps so that they can display them. Curiously, apparently the equivalent US service does indeed support subtitles – and it is merely Amazon UK that are yet to rectify the problem.

This also contrasts to the likes of the BBC iPlayer, which is required to make subtitles available on nearly all programmes on all platforms.

Interestingly too, if you look at the guidelines of the TV regulator, Ofcom, you’ll see that traditional broadcasters (ie: TV channels you receive with a satellite dish or an aerial) must subtitle 80% of their programming to retain a broadcast license. But this doesn’t apply to Amazon – they’re not a TV channel, so have no license to risk losing.

The UK on-demand video regulator, ATVOD, who could theoretically do something currently have no subtitle quotas or requirements, and in any case, enforcing rules could be more of a legal minefield in terms of defining what services should be regulated (“If Amazon are regulators, should a video on my tiny personal website be?”. Drawing a line is much trickier than “is it transmitted from a TV transmitter?”)

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Today’s protest is partially the work of stand-up comedian Mark Thomas, as part of his “100 Acts of Minor Dissent” project, in which he has spent the last year taking part in a wide range of direct action activism. Today’s protest is actually taking place on the last day of the project, and as such Thomas is attempting to take part in five protests in a single day, before an epic five hour show telling the story of the last year in Sheffield in a couple of days time.

Today’s action no doubt took inspiration from this petition that has received over 14,000 signatures calling on Amazon to act. Here’s their list of demands:

Last year, over 14 thousand people signed the petition to ask LOVEFiLM to make their services accessible to people with Hearing Loss. Since then, they have rebranded to Amazon Prime Video. They claim that they are “working on the situation”. A claim they have been making for several years. They refuse to provide a timescale, record of progress or firm commitment to making their services accessible.

Amazon UK needs to fix this problem and fast. I’m calling on them to make a commitment to people with hearing loss and pledge, not only to fix the problem, but to set a clear timetable of when we can start to see improvements to the service.

At the same time Amazon has revamped LOVEFiLM’s DVD rental website. It’s great that finally, for some of the films, we can now see if they have subtitles before deciding to rent – but for hundreds of other DVD titles, there’s still a question mark about accessibility.

That’s why I’m continuing to call on LOVEFiLM & Amazon to provide subtitling information for ALL of their films.

We won’t give up. As paying customers, we demand the same services as everyone else has and what our American peers enjoy.

New name, same poor service!

New name, same old excuses!

People with hearing loss in the US can watch subtitled content.

Why can’t the over 10 million people with hearing loss in the UK?

This isn’t the first time the technology industry has been on receiving end of his work. Last June he organised a flashmob in the Regent’s Street Apple Store, in protest at their (lack of) tax affairs:

So will today’s action force Amazon to finally take a serious look at the problem? I’ve reached out to Amazon for comment, and will update this post should they respond.

Update (15:24): Still not word from Amazon, but the charity Action on Hearing Loss have got in touch with their thoughts on the protest. Chief Executive Paul Breckell said:

“Hopefully the stunt will prompt Amazon to engage with the deaf community and make a commitment to improve their service – especially as this comes hard on the heels of a 14,000-strong petition calling for better provision of subtitles and the numerous attempts we have made to raise this issue with them. Why should deaf and hard of hearing customers of on-demand TV and film providers, like Amazon, miss out on what their hearing peers can easily access? In the USA, Amazon’s on-demand services provide subtitles, so it’s extremely disappointing that they don’t here.”

“While we welcome recent moves Amazon have made to indicate whether their DVDs have subtitles, this only scratches the surface. If they stock a DVD that does not have subtitles, this must be immediately clear to customers so that some with hearing loss doesn’t rent a film they cannot watch.”

Update (18:18) An Amazon spokesperson has got in touch and says the following:

“Amazon is committed to ensuring that all our customers can enjoy the full benefits of our products and services. We expect to begin rolling out closed captioned titles on Prime Instant Video movie and TV streaming service this year, and will continue to expand the range of closed captioned movies and TV shows over time. In addition, our DVD product detail pages provide information about the availability of closed captioned titles and subtitles where provided by studios, and we will continue to actively pursue closed captioning from all of our studio partners.”

By James O'Malley | May 13th, 2014





James O'MalleyComedian Mark Thomas takes to the streets in protest against Amazon's lack of subtitles (Updated)