Charlie Swinbourne: Sky need to smarten up about offering deaf customers subtitles for on-demand services

Posted on February 19, 2015

When I transferred our TV services from Virgin to Sky last year, one thing that really helped me do so was being able to negotiate our package by using Live Chat to talk to an adviser.

For me, that’s a big help, because it means I don’t have to use the phone, and I feel a bit more sure what I’m getting into, because it’s all in writing. Great.

The main reason I was changing was because I wanted Sky Atlantic (I’m a fan of Mad Men, Veep, and I’m currently enjoying a new comedy called Togetherness quite a lot too).

Several weeks later, our dish and box were installed and at first we were pretty pleased.

Then we started trying to use some of the on-demand services.

Now, we knew that not everything would have subtitles on it, but maybe we’d taken our previous provider for granted a bit because when we had Virgin, we were able to use Netflix and BBC iPlayer using our Virgin box, and subtitles came up without a problem.

With Sky, we couldn’t use Netflix at all (although this isn’t a ‘deaf’ thing, it’s the same for everyone) but I was shocked to find that I couldn’t get subtitles on BBC iPlayer.

I can use BBC iPlayer on my phone, iPad, laptop, and subtitles come up fine on all of them. But not on the Sky box.

That wouldn’t be so bad, except I also can’t use catch up TV services for Sky programmes – annoying, because there’s a wealth of content I’d like to see.

Recently, there have been a load of adverts for on-demand box sets – so that people can watch whole series through their Sky boxes. This comes at an extra cost – but it’s another service that is also inaccessible for deaf customers.

I got to thinking: I pay the same as a hearing customer, but there’s all this content I can’t access.

So last week, I thought I’d go on Live Chat again, to bring this up with an advisor.

What I was told is that Sky “are investigating” this problem. I told them in reply that I wasn’t happy about this because in the meantime, I was still paying for services I couldn’t use.

Their reply was interesting. Catch up TV is apparently given ‘free’ to customers, so although I wasn’t able to access it, it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t paying for it anyway.

I wasn’t very pleased about that. I asked whether, if Catch up TV stopped tomorrow, for all their customers, they’d be concerned about that? Or would they tell those customers that it didn’t matter because they weren’t paying for it anyway?

What the adviser did tell me is that part of the problem is how the subtitles are captured – which is different for live TV than it is for on-demand services. And she offered me £10 off my next bill.

It’s nice that Sky are shouting me enough money to buy a round at the pub or a takeaway, but £10 is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of their services over a year.

So it’s a massive shame that deaf customers, despite paying the same as hearing customers, aren’t able to access a huge chunk of their services.

I reckon we end up paying more as a result of this, because we end up buying other services in addition to our TV subscription, like Netflix, for example, which we can access.

Or, we’re tempted to access these programmes for free, using shady sites on the internet. Which I don’t endorse, obviously, but I can understand why people feel tempted to use them.

Sky are very good at focusing on winning football rights (at a cost of a massive £5 billion pounds no less), or acquiring great dramas to make people like me switch their services.

It’d be great if they also focused on adding subtitles to on-demand services – they might also retain more deaf customers as a result.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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