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Marlee Matlin launches reality series on YouTube

March 30, 2010 |  5:13 pm

Marlee Matlin 2

Marlee Matlin had an idea for a reality show that she hoped would bring some insight into the lives and struggles of deaf people and how they cope. But while reality TV has brought us wife swappers, party girls, aging rock stars and dieting divas, apparently no one was ready for something that real.

So instead, the hearing-impaired actress who won an Academy Award as lead actress for her role in "Children of a Lesser God," took her show "My Deaf Family" to Google's YouTube. You can watch it here.

"Deaf and hard of hearing people make up one of the largest minority groups," she said in an interview through her interpreter, Jack Jason, "and yet there has never been a show, a reality documentary series that features what life is like for them." Matlin financed the show, which tells the story of a family in Fremont, Calif. All the family members are deaf, except for the oldest son, Jared, and the youngest, Elijah. It is narrated by Jared.

Matlin shopped her pilot to network executives, who purported to "love it." But none would take the plunge.
"They didn't quite know if they could pull it off, or even how," Matlin said.

Refusing to give up, Matlin turned to the Internet, more specifically to YouTube, the world's default broadcaster of Web video. 

"I didn't want to wait for the networks to warm up to the idea of whether the show would be a hit or not with audiences," she said. "So I decided to put it out there on my own terns. YouTube is akin to having my own [TV] network."

There's another reason Matlin chose YouTube. The Google subsidiary in November introduced an automatic captioning system for its videos. The system is a mash-up of Google's speech-to-text voice recognition technology used in Google Voice and captioning software that syncs the text with the video.

Right now, the experimental program can only recognize spoken English, but once transcribed, it can translate the text to 50 different languages.

"Google’s mission is to make all the world’s information universally accessible," explained Ken Harrenstien, the software engineer who led the captioning effort. "We’re about accessibility to everyone for everything."

Because YouTube is inundated with a constant stream of videos (about 24 hours of videos are uploaded to the site every minute), it does not automatically caption every piece that comes along. Instead, viewers have to request that a particular video be captioned. Once the request is made, it takes about 24 hours to deliver the captions.

Harrenstein cautions that the captions aren't going to be perfect. Ambient noise can affect the translation. But the software is also prone to error. YouTube is hoping that the owners of the videos will upload corrected captions through a quick process it has designed.

That's good enough for Matlin, who said, "The process isn't 100% there yet. But they've done it. And that's a good thing."

For an edited transcript of our interview with Matlin on her project, click on the continue reading link below.

Marlee Matlin Tell us about the show you're premiering on YouTube. What's the premise? What's your involvement with it? 

Matlin: My intention was to do a show unlike any that's ever been seen on television; a show about what life is like for 35 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing from the perspective that everyone could identify with: a young 15-year-old hearing teenager. It's called "My Deaf Family," and that pretty much sums up in the title what the show is about. I like to think of it as a deaf/hearing version of "Little People, Big World."

It was an idea that grew out of my own family (I have 4 children who are hearing, and I'm their mom who is deaf) and the experiences of my business partner and interpreter, Jack Jason, who is hearing but who grew up with deaf parents. I produced and financed the pilot and shot it fast -- in one and a half days with the help of a great director, Donald Bull, who has a list of credits longer than my arm in the reality / documentary arena.

How did you come up with the idea for the show?

Matlin: After I did "Dancing with the Stars," several networks approached me about doing a reality show about my family because I'm a crazy deaf mom. Unfortunately, my husband works in law enforcement and we were concerned about security, so we set out to find another compelling deaf/hearing family to do a documentary reality show about. We found the family we wanted, on a fluke, from a friend of Jack's who also grew up with deaf parents.

Deaf and hard of hearing people make up one of the largest minority groups in the USA and the world and yet there has never been a reality/documentary series that features what life is like for them on a daily basis. After doing a nationwide search, we hit upon the Firl family of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Firls have an interesting background. The mom and dad both work at the largest schools for the deaf in the country, the California School for the Deaf, a fascinating community unto itself in Fremont, Calif. Everyone signs there -- baristas at Starbucks, gas station attendants. It's just wild. Our pilot episode even features a deaf basketball tournament with cheerleaders from all over the country who are deaf. It kind of feels like a sign-language version of "Glee"! All of this is told from the perspective of one cool teenager, Jared, who is 15 and who is hearing. I've just never seen another show like it on TV!

Did you shop it around to the various broadcasters? What was the reaction?

Matlin: The network executives loved it. The reaction couldn't have been more positive. But as is the case with me and a lot of ideas that I've pitched over the years involving story lines with deaf characters, they didn't quite know if they could pull it off or even how.

I assured them that, having been around for 25 years in the business and watching how it was done on shows like "Picket Fences," "Seinfeld," "The West Wing" and "The L Word," we could do it. But they balked. I even said it worked in reality TV, as demonstrated when I hosted "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and, of course, "Dancing With the Stars." But they still hesitated because they had no idea how an audience would react to characters signing with voice-overs and occasional subtitles. Anyone who watches reality television will tell you that they employ subtitles a lot for dialogue that's difficult to catch on the fly. But I wouldn't give up.

So you went to YouTube. Why?

Matlin: I didn't want to wait for the networks to warm up to the idea of whether the show would be a hit or not with audiences, so I decided to put it out there on my own terms. YouTube is akin to having my own network. After a small initial outlay, I am putting the show out there myself for all to see, hoping that the reaction will be great and that sponsors and networks will see that the show can work. Plus, the show can be viewed worldwide on YouTube, an audience greater than anyone could imagine.

Will you be doing more with YouTube? Have your own channel on YouTube? Air more episodes? Or just this one?

Matlin: This is my pilot. Hopefully the reaction from viewers and word of mouth will be positive. We have plenty of episode ideas in the can and ready to go at a moment's notice. And the family is ready too.

Tell us a little about the state of closed-captioned content.

Matlin: You'd be shocked to find out how much of what is already captioned on TV is not captioned when it moves to the Internet. Popular broadcast shows and movies have their closed captions stripped when they go to the Internet. Even worse, it appears that the motivation to provide access for millions of viewers who rely on closed captions for access -- also for people learning English as a second language, children learning how to read, not to mention people in noisy environments -- is just not there.

Just like in the early days of captioning when I had to go Capitol Hill and force broadcasters to provide closed captions through legislation (and won), it looks like the battle has to be fought all over again with broadcast content that is moving to the Web. Google, as usual, is one step ahead of everyone and provided the means where all videos on YouTube can be automatically captioned through voice-recognition technology without having to be told that it's the responsible thing to do.

The process isn't quite 100% there yet. But they've done it. And that's a good thing. Now I'm waiting for the other content providers (I won't name names, but let's say it's about 99% of websites that provide streaming video content as well as video on demand) to follow Google's example.

What's your goal with this show? Do you want a broadcaster to pick it up? Do you want to just keep the show exclusively online?

Matlin: To make good TV with characters you've never seen before but which you can easily identify with. Isn't that what it's always been about? And yes, I'd love for a broadcaster to pick it up. I guess in this world where economics, number crunching and demographics are what drive decisions, you have to roll up your sleeves and find other ways to prove that your show is good TV. I wouldn't mind an exclusive online agreement or network agreement, as long as I can find the means to tell more stories about this fascinating family.

Do you want to make money on the show as part of the YouTube partner program? Or do you see it mainly as a marketing vehicle for your show?

Matlin: Much as I wish I could, I'm not a wealthy millionaire who can fund my own studio and productions, creating shows out of my own pocket that I think people would like to watch. I do have to earn a living as an actor and producer, and I thought this was the best way to do it.

I viewed this process much like what Lucille Ball did way back when she created "I Love Lucy" with her husband, Desi Arnaz. She told me once that the networks balked big time when it came to casting her real-life husband, Desi, as her TV husband. No one wanted to watch a guy with a Cuban accent on TV.
Without any network interested in financing the production, Lucy and Desi took their show out on the road and sold it to America their way. We all know the rest is history.

I wouldn't be so bold as compare my show with "I Love Lucy," but the idea is still the same. At the end of the day, "My Deaf Family" is about a typical family that all of us can identify with but told from an unusual and what I believe will be a fascinating perspective. I just have to find the way to sell it and convince people this is what people want to see.

-- Alex Pham

Top photo credit: Lord of the Wind Films. Bottom: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.


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