Fans to Netflix: Make Daredevil accessible to the blind

Netflix and Marvel Studios' Daredevil character.
Marvel
Netflix and Marvel Studios' Daredevil character.

Robert Kingett, 25, is a self-proclaimed geek who enjoys video games and comic books. So it is no surprise he was looking forward to the Netflix original series on Marvel Comics' Daredevil, which debuted on Friday.

There was just one problem: Like Daredevil, Kingett is legally blind, and Netflix does not provide audio descriptions, a feature that narrates non-verbal action on screen to help the visually impaired better enjoy filmed entertainment.

Kingett is just one of a number of comic book fans—both blind and sighted—who are lobbying Netflix to make "Daredevil" accessible to the visually impaired. And while the fact that a show based on a blind protagonist will not have audio description has stirred consternation, the issue extends far beyond Daredevil's fictional world.

The cost of audio description is "a tuppence" compared to the price of producing movies and television, said Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates. The company charges about $5,000 to write, voice, and record description for a roughly 21/2-hour movie, and about $1,000 for a 22-minute sitcom.

Since October 2012, Kingett has been writing to Netflix executives under the banner of the Accessible Netflix Project, a grassroots campaign now comprised of 11 blind volunteers who want the world's largest streaming video service to provide audio descriptions. The group has since asked Netflix to audio describe "Daredevil" in particular.

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"It's entertainment, but accessibility is important regardless of if it's entertainment or education," said Kingett, who also lives with cerebral palsy and contributes stories to gaming publications about accessible video games for the blind.

To be sure, Netflix is not the only over-the-top service that fails to offer the feature. Neither Hulu nor Amazon Instant Video describe their originals.

Nor is the description common on broadcast television. FCC rules require local affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox located in the top 25 markets—as well as the top five non-broadcast networks—to provide at least 50 hours of audio described programming per quarter. The regulation will expand to the largest 60 markets in July.

PBS and Turner Movie Classics offer audio description on select programming, though they are not required to do so.

But the case of "Daredevil" has touched a nerve among comic book fans, and some feel the show presents an opportunity for Netflix to take a leading roll in streaming audio description.

Last fall, New York-based comic book creator Rich Bernatovech began calling Netflix to ask the company to add audio descriptions to "Daredevil." He said he was inspired to take action after a woman at his local dog park told him her visually impaired son was disappointed to learn the show would not be described.

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Bernatovech said he got no definitive answer from Netflix, so he took to Facebook to raise awareness among his friends and network of comic book professionals.

"Am I the only person who finds it bad that there is a show about a blind superhero coming on TV and people, more importantly children, who are visually impaired will not be able to enjoy this show unless they find their own way to get audio description?" he wrote.

Kuljit Mithra, who runs the Daredevil fansite manwithoutfear.com, posted links to the Accessible Netflix Project in support of the effort after Kingett contacted him.

"I thought it was a good idea. Why shouldn't Netflix provide audio description for the show?" he said in an email to CNBC.

The outcry among fans has moved the conversation forward. National non-profit law center Disability Rights Advocates has held talks with Netflix on behalf of the American Council of the Blind—and Kingett was one of the early movers who asked the firm to take on Netflix's accessibility issue.

"Robert [Kingett] was definitely key in bringing this to our attention, as well as others at the ACB. He's been very much a motivator in getting these issues addressed," Larry Paradis, executive director at Disability Rights Advocates, told CNBC.

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Disability Rights Advocates is asking Netflix to describe their own original content, contractually oblige movie studios to provide descriptive narration tracks when they are already available, and make it easier for blind customers to identify which DVDs in its library are described.

A spokesperson for Netflix told CNBC, "We are working hard to provide great entertainment to all our members, including the hearing and visually disabled. We don't have any further updates to share at this time."

Netflix plans to triple the amount of original content it produces to 320 hours this year. Spending on originals increased 18 percent year over year to $270 million in 2014, Janney Capital Markets estimated in a recent research note.

Snyder, who holds a PhD in translation and helped pioneer audio description in the 80s, said the United States has fallen behind in the field despite getting an early start. Meanwhile, he estimated the UK now describes about 10 percent of its broadcasts, and said Canada is ramping up accessibility, too.

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As for "Daredevil," he said he was not terribly concerned about the show being described, and cautioned that pursuing description for shows featuring blind characters might give content providers the impression that the visually impaired only want to see "The Miracle Worker."

"Blind people want to watch good television, good film—or bad television and bad film—just like sighted people," he said.

The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that 21 million people in the United States—about 6.5 percent of the population—have trouble seeing even with correction. "That's an untapped, underserved market," said Snyder.

The dearth of accessible entertainment encourages many blind people to seek out less-than-legal options in the gray market, Kingett told CNBC. He said emails circulate in the community that provide links to websites hosting unofficial content with audio descriptions.

"If [Netflix] actually did become accessible then so many of us would not have to go to the black market," Kingett said. "It's kind of an ironic joke: 'Hey, if you're blind, you know how to get accessible illegal content.'"