BBC responds to our article on the lack of on-demand subtitles on Sky

Posted on March 6, 2015

Below is the BBC’s response to our article on the lack of on-demand subtitles on Sky, explaining what some of the issues are:

I read your Limping Chicken blog on the lack of subtitles on Sky and I thought I would offer the BBC Future Media perspective on this.

Since we launched iPlayer in 2008 subtitles have been a core part of the service. We have gone through many software iterations and workflow designs to create a service that can be delivered on multiple platforms and can deliver 100% of the available subtitles to those platforms.

It’s been a bit of a rocky journey as broadcast technical standards and web standards are mostly not interchangeable.

Back in those early days there was no media player that could properly display subtitles so we built our own, the web standards did not support the broadcast experience so we have ended up chairing both the international working groups on the subject (EBU an W3C) and our own broadcast systems were built before anything like iPlayer had been thought of so a complete technical refresh was required.

We knew this was going to be a big project as there was no precedent and there was nothing off-the-shelf subtitle solution we could use. This programme is still underway and we are still making improvements.

One of the problems we have had is that a lot of the 1,200+ devices we have published a version of iPlayer on are based on older technology platforms. Some were not originally designed to deliver access services and some were not even originally designed to support a VOD service.

In these cases we have worked with the manufacturers to see if features like subtitles for VOD can be retrofitted. In a few cases we have been successful but in others despite a lot of effort by both the BBC and the platform providers this has not been possible.

In those cases we have focused our efforts on their new platforms and products. Virgin is a perfect example of that. For 2 years we had a technical project with Virgin to retrofit subtitles on their classic platform. I believe around 5 ideas were built and tested but all of them broke. Eventually we turned our attention to Virgin TIVO which had the right capabilities built in from the start.

FYI, other platforms that we couldn’t get subtitles to work on included; Wii, BT Vision and FreeSat. Their new platforms; Wii U, YouView and FreeSat G2 all support the service.

Sky OD is the last of these older platforms to get a version of iPlayer and subtitle delivery has been part of the project from the outset. We are working closely with their technical team on this but they still haven’t cracked the problem. When they say that ‘they are working on it’ you have to believe them and we have seen a lot of progress, but reverse engineering something like this is not straightforward.

The content is there, the platform just cannot deliver it, yet. Sky has always done a lot of work on accessibility and this is our first project with them and like you, both the BBC and Sky are keen to see this resolved.

As standards converge and legacy platforms are replaced this problem will eventually resolve itself however I appreciate that as a consumer this no help to you in the shorter-term.

In the meantime we hope to make a lot of improvements to our subtitle service and are currently undertaking a programme of research into the user experience of subtitles which will help us deliver a better experience on all platforms.

I hope this has been useful and if you have any questions please contact me directly (*via – we will pass it on to him) and I’ll do the best I can to answer your questions.


Gareth Ford Williams
Head of Accessibility, User Experience & Design

BBC Future Media 

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