An open letter to Lord Sugar: don’t leave deaf fans of The Apprentice seven seconds behind

Posted on March 21, 2012

Tonight, the BBC launches the eighth series of The Apprentice.

For twelve episodes, 16 candidates will once again try to avoid being fired by Lord Sugar so that they can sell, barter and argue their way to the prize of £250,000 to set up their own business.

But many of us Deafies are wondering whether it’s worth even starting to watch the series.

Back in December, we sat down to watch the final of Young Apprentice, only to find that the live subtitles which had been added to the show were running seven seconds behind the action

In a show that is fast paced and dramatic, with short scenes, numerous participants and frequent cuts, this made it nearly impossible to work out who was speaking when.

Seven seconds might not sound like much, but it’s an age in TV terms. More often than not, we were left watching subtitles from the scene before the one we were watching on screen.

That’s without mentioning the mistakes.

Live subtitles are made as it happens, through voice recognition or stenography, and mistakes are inevitable. It’s easier to understand this happening on a live programme (such as the news or live sport), but not one that was pre-recorded, as the Apprentice is.

The use of live subtitles made the final unwatchable for deaf people (who add up to ten million potential viewers in the UK) and because it happened during the final, deaf people weren’t slow to respond on Twitter:

Ian Noon: “What about fair access to deaf young people?”

Tyron Woolfe: ” Deaf People sick of this, live subtitling does not work, we are getting everything 20 seconds later…. its PATHETIC”

Martine Monksfield: “disappointing re. live subtitles on #youngapprentice which means deafies 10seconds behind = lost. Turned over!”

Several of us complained to the BBC after the Young Apprentice final.

The BBC complaints team passed on my complaint to Access Services who replied:

This was due to late delivery or a late technical review which meant that, unfortunately, Access didn’t have enough time to create a pre-prepared subtitle file.”

Ian Noon, meanwhile, wrote on his blog that he was told that that the subtitles were live (rather than pre-recorded) due to technical problems. When he asked what these technical problems were, he was told:

The technical problems to which we refer is that many programmes are only completed close to transmission or have to be re-edited just before broadcast for countless possible reasons.”

As Ian went on to write:

“How exactly is completing programmes close to transmission and re-editing them at last minute a “technical problem?” It isn’t a technical problem. It’s poor planning. It’s some guy in the production team deciding not to leave enough time in the schedule to allow subtitles be ready in time. It’s some guy deciding that access for deaf people is a lesser priority. ”

And this may go further than poor planning and disorganisation. We have a man called John to thank for pointing something out.

After my blog about the Young Apprentice final, John left a comment pointing out some information online about how the winner is chosen on the Young Apprentice website. The same information remains online for the last series of The Apprentice. The really important bit is in bold:

[Lord Sugar] makes his decision on the day of the final boardroom meeting. As there is a gap between the shoot and transmission (to leave time for editing), measures are taken to ensure that the outcome is kept a secret for viewers prior to transmission.

Two endings are filmed in order to ensure that the winner is not revealed in advance. Lord Sugar does not tell the production team and the finalists about the identity of his Apprentice until the day before the transmission of the final programme.

This indicates that, with keeping the name of the winner a secret an absolute priority, so little time is left between Lord Sugar revealing the winner’s name and the transmission of the programme that pre-recorded subtitles become impossible to provide.

So the reason pre-recorded subtitles aren’t appearing on the final of The Apprentice is not because of a mistake, or some kind of accident. It may (if true) actually be a result of the policies adopted by the show’s makers.

So, with the new series about to kick off, it’s time to ask Lord Sugar and the makers of The Apprentice two questions:

1) Would you, under any circumstances, tolerate a policy on your show that meant your final was transmitted with a seven second delay in the sound?

2) If not, why would you do the equivalent, in terms of subtitle provision, to your deaf audience?

It would be nice to get an answer to this, wouldn’t it?

Thus far, us Deafies have been reactive, complaining after the event. So we thought that with twelve episodes to go, we might be able to change things if we brought this up now.

Who knows, maybe Lord Sugar could share his decision about the winner with one really trustworthy, kindly subtitler who could rustle up our subtitles a few days before transmission, before locking herself in a bomb (and tabloid) proof room until the programme goes out? Surely there’s one subtitler he can trust?

Or even simpler, give the kindly subtitler both versions of the programme featuring each potential winner, and have her prepare both in advance. Presumably it’s only the last five minutes that are different?

Subtitles are supposed to give deaf people equal access – but they can’t unless we are treated as an audience that holds equal weight to non-deaf people.

Why should we start watching a series that eventually will last a whole half a day (that’s twelve hour-long episodes) if the final, the really satisfying bit where we find out the winner, is delivered to us as a complete shambles.

Twelve hours of foreplay only to miss the exciting bit at the end. That’s no fun, is it?

If this series ends with live subtitles appearing in the final again, we’ll be getting ready to say those immortal words to the programme makers themselves:

You’re fired.”


Charlie Swinbourne

Ian Noon

Martine Monksfield

Tyron Woolfe

Joanne Swinbourne

Do you agree? Would you like your name to be added to this open letter? Leave your comment below and tell us what you think.

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