Deaf News: Ofcom to audit subtitles on live TV programmes

Posted on October 16, 2013

Ofcom will begin a regular audit of the quality of TV broadcasters’ subtitles from next year, to help improve the service for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

Under measures announced today, broadcasters will be required to measure the quality of their subtitling on live TV programmes every six months, for two years. During that time, Ofcom will regularly collate and publish the data in order to encourage broadcasters to address those aspects where quality could be improved.

More than a million people who are deaf use subtitles to watch television. While pre-prepared subtitling is generally of good quality, viewers have made clear that there are continuing problems with the speed, accuracy, synchronisation and presentation of live subtitles.


Ofcom consulted in May on proposals aimed at improving live subtitling, and has now decided to require broadcasters to collect data on the number and type of errors, as well as subtitling speeds and latency (the gap between the words being spoken on screen and the corresponding subtitle appearing).

Ofcom will publish twice-yearly reports, allowing broadcasters and viewers to monitor progress and see where there is room for improvement. Ofcom will also use this evidence to consider whether changes to its current guidance on latency and speed might be appropriate, and whether to set targets for broadcasters to meet.

Making subtitles easier to read

Some 70 channels are now required to provide subtitling. Most of these show pre-recorded programmes, for which subtitling can be prepared in advance. This means the subtitles can be synchronised to images, edited to a reasonable reading speed, presented in easy-to-read block subtitles and checked for errors.

However, live programming and some pre-recorded programmes have to be subtitled live. Live subtitles are delayed by several seconds and are prone to errors. They also generally scroll across the screen, which research suggests is more demanding for viewers.

Ofcom welcomes proposals by some broadcasters to make greater use of block subtitling (in which several words appear at once, together in a single block) in programmes containing a mix of pre-recorded and live content, such as news bulletins. Viewers have made clear that they prefer block subtitles, provided this does not come at the cost of increased delays.

Ofcom is therefore encouraging broadcasters to use block subtitles where appropriate, and to consider whether, in some programmes which are not time-sensitive, short transmission delays might be inserted to allow better-quality subtitling to be prepared.

Next steps

Ofcom intends to publish the first report on broadcasters’ measurement work in the spring, and subsequently every six months for two years. At the end of the two-year reporting period, Ofcom will draw on these reports to consider making changes to its guidance on latency, speed and any future targets.

Ofcom has also asked broadcasters to report early next year on how many pre-recorded programmes had to be subtitled live because they were delivered late. In addition, Ofcom is asking broadcasters to report on any technical problems that disrupted subtitling.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom Consumer Group Director, said: “We are taking important steps towards improving the quality of subtitling on live programmes for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

“Ofcom expects regular reporting by broadcasters to help improve subtitles over time, as well as allowing us to identify exactly which areas need most progress.”

Ofcom’s statement can be found here.


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