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Netflix’s Kathy Rokni describes how accessibility is a craft of its own

Close up Netflix website in laptop screen.

Close up Netflix website in laptop screen.   | Photo Credit: wutwhanfoto/ Getty Images

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The streaming service’s director of globalisation, Kathy Rokni, on making content accessible on varying screens and for newer audiences

There is a moment in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch during which you have to choose between confiding in a therapist about trauma or staying mum. But the screen is, somehow, not as cluttered as you’d expect it to be: especially if you’re using Closed Captioning (CC) along with the pop-up text for the choices you must make. While some may brush it off as simple tech, it is really not.

At production houses like Netflix, a major chunk of this is due to the work of the globalisation and accessibility departments. Accessibility, as a form of content production, is strategic to the formula for their content to stay relevant while connecting with digital audiences.

In an exclusive interview with Weekend, Kathy Rokni, the company’s director of globalisation, gets candid about inclusion on an innovative level.

Netflix’s Kathy Rokni describes how accessibility is a craft of its own

How does Netflix stay up-to-date with the legalities of accessibility and content delivery in each country/region to unify strategy?

Obviously, Netflix complies with accessibility laws in all countries, where they apply and exist. The reality is that not all countries have strong laws or have taken actions along these lines. Being a streaming service and having the advantage of using technology, we have the platform to improve the member experience for everyone. We started in the USA with Audio Description (AD) and CC because our goal is to become accessible to people in many more countries.

Netflix’s Kathy Rokni describes how accessibility is a craft of its own

Given the mobile-exclusive plan in India, how do you ensure an uncluttered experience on a smaller screen?

India is the first, and at present, the only country to have the mobile plan. We work with a very strong design team and a consumer insight team, whose jobs are to research the best ways of providing viewers with an immersive experience, visually, audio-wise and text-wise. As we learn from our members and from the research, we apply the findings to our products — mobile, in this case. It is an ever-growing process, and we hope to continuously improve.

Have there been any challenges or roadblocks Netflix has experienced in terms of sensitivities?

I wouldn’t call them roadblocks, they are more sensitivities, as you said. As a company which started in the USA, we learned a lot from our global members, especially about how to connect them with great stories. One of our biggest learning points? The assumption that people want content that’s familiar isn’t accurate. You’d think this was common knowledge but we’ve observed a vast consumption of secondary assets — such as subtitling and dubbing. And members have returned to that content.

Netflix’s Kathy Rokni describes how accessibility is a craft of its own

We’ve seen the warnings for those with photo-sensitive epilepsy, but do accessibility aspects seep into physical production like sound design and visualisation?

Given we do a lot of AV testing, there’s a strong discipline in leaning into innovation, learning and being at the edge of technology while making content. On a production level, there are ‘best practices’ that don’t impact the creative content. For example, when we do our subtitling, we are conscious of boxing the text if the background on the screen is white.

When adding classic films or series to your lineup, what measures does your team take to make this content accessible?

Actually, the older content is quite permissive. Our hope as a content-maker is that more people enjoy it. Regardless of genre, we can always create the appropriate facilities, be it AD or CC. That’s the beauty of content. In terms of licensed content, we work with our partners to get access to the secondary assets. In the case of, say, Friends, there’s no AD though.

Let’s talk interactive films; Bandersnatch was a success and Netflix has more coming out soon. Have you done anything with interactive films to make them more accessible?

We’re definitely working on it. One of the things we’ve just been doing, on the product side, is positioning the subtitles, or we can position the captioning so that it’s still immersive and doesn’t compete.

Netflix’s Kathy Rokni describes how accessibility is a craft of its own

Let’s get technical. Tell us about the process of creating audio descriptions (AD)

To create audio descriptions, you need a script adaptor, a director and trained voice talent. Challenges include writing to fit gaps, while still leaving room for key silences and background sounds, editing on the fly, finding the right voice talent (for example: Female narrator for a male-heavy show to make differentiating easy, younger voices for kids’ shows). A good example is the sequence in the house in SeE7 of Stranger Things, where the demogorgon attacks. There’s a lot happening in that scene; and the demogorgon is CGI, of course. But the AD throws in short descriptions without overwhelming the sounds, so as to remain immersive.

The job of an audio descriptions script adaptor is to explain the scene and the situation while paying attention to the creative intent — without it dominating dialogues or any of the background music, which are key to the content.

There’s a director for recording ADs, who directs the voice talent in a manner similar to a dubbing director. The ADs go through the same quality check as the language dubbing.

Netflix’s Kathy Rokni describes how accessibility is a craft of its own

We kicked off our audio description initiative in English with Marvel’s Daredevil —about a blind superhero—and have been increasing the number of shows/films we cover, as well as the languages we support. Today we support 10,000-plus hours of audio description on Netflix globally covering most of our originals and films, in up to 36 languages.

Earlier this year, there was talk a Rumble Pak project which uses vibrations and haptics for mobile.

Innovation is at the heart of what we do at Netflix. We want to use it to not just tell better stories, but also to tell them to more people. Hack Day acts as a great platform for such innovations. And we look to see how these ideas can help make the experience better for our members. Rumble Pack was one of the most exciting things to come out of Hack Day this year. And mobile is exciting for us, as you know — with Smart Downloads, vertical previews, the mobile plan in India, adaptive streaming. So we continue to see how this can be made useful.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 5:01:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/netflix-exclusive-interview-with-director-of-globalistion-kathy-rokni-about-accessibility-and-technology/article29862300.ece

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