Richard Turner: Subtitles need to go back to the future

Posted on June 3, 2015

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In 2003 Tony Blair was still Prime Minister. ‘Friends’ was running its last series, Facebook had only just been launched worldwide and Apple’s iTunes store had only just been developed.

That was also the year that I got my first Nokia 3200 mobile phone.

It was state of the art technology at the time. I kept texting all my friends on it as it was such a novelty at the time.

We didn’t have Virgin TiVo, catch-up TV or video-on-demand then, so I was resigned to watching the four main TV channels and recording my favourite programmes on my DVD player. How times have changed!

It was also the last time that there was any legislation made on TV subtitling. The Communications Act was introduced in 2003, which set a legal requirement for broadcasters to provide access services for people with hearing and sight loss.

They were given ten years to reach full access requirements of 80% subtitling and 5% signing from the time specified in the Act or from when they started broadcasting.

The BBC and ITV have actually exceeded that target, with virtually all of their terrestrial TV programmes now available with subtitles, and some catch-up TV services such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Player having all of their content subtitled.

That’s great, but the way we watch TV has changed a lot and the number of channels we now watch has increased dramatically.

Over the last decade, there has been a rapid development of video-on-demand (VOD) services. We are now watching VOD channels and catch-up TV on a variety of different platforms and devices, whether streamed live over the internet, on our smartphones, apps and tablets, as well as on traditional TV sets.

We are increasingly moving towards connected TV with all our different devices connected to each other.

But while the technology is racing ahead, the provision of access lags behind, struggling to catch up. The rapid development of VOD services and catch-up TV was not foreseen in the Communications Act of 2003.

Subtitling of these services are not included in the regulation or quotas, as it only includes programmes broadcast on the main terrestrial TV channels.

It’s a frustrating experience trying to watch video on demand and catch-up TV services if you’re deaf or hard of hearing. We are being left out and let down by not being able to access the TV programmes we want to because of a lack of subtitles.

It is simply not fair that we pay the same premium rates as everyone else to broadcasters such as Sky and Virgin Media when the majority of their VOD content is inaccessible to us.

The government has recognised the problem. In the ‘Connectivity, Content and Consumers’ report published in July 2013 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, they said that they would work with the Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD) to increase the level of subtitles for on-demand content, and if it is clear that progress was not being made in three years’ time, they would consider legislation.

With only a year left before this three-year window runs out in 2016, very little progress has been made by the broadcasters.

Because of this, charity Action on Hearing Loss is urging Ed Vaizey, the Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, to make good the Government’s promise to consider legislation if progress is not being made.

Deaf people have got a very good track record of lobbying to bring about changes to TV access. In fact, in a conference I attended recently on subtitling, Ruth Griffiths, who built the BBC’s subtitling, sign language interpretation and audio description services in a twenty-five year career, went so far as saying: “Deaf viewers have probably been the most successful lobbyists in broadcasting”.

If it wasn’t for persistent lobbying by deaf campaigners, subtitling would never have been introduced into TV broadcasting in the first place in the 1990s.

I think now is a good time to campaign to increase the level of subtitling for VOD services and to secure accessible TV viewing for future generations. Not only has technology revolutionised the way we watch TV, it has also revolutionised the way we campaign.

We can all take action by letting the government know that it is time they acted through Action on Hearing Loss’s Subtitle It! campaign. It is a very simple action and a great way to use our personal experiences to bring about much needed change.

It’s also really important that deaf and hard of hearing people, as paying customers, let broadcasters know via social media or email about the difficulties we all face because of the lack of TV subtitling.

If we don’t tell them, they will continue to claim that they see no reason to do anything about their current coverage because if no-one complains about it, they don’t think there is a need to improve it.

As technology evolves rapidly, that is all the more reason why we need to keep campaigning for better subtitling. If new legislation is not introduced soon, we risk being left behind and stuck in the world of 2003 when it comes to TV access and inclusion!

Find out more about Action on Hearing Loss’s new Subtitle It! campaign

By Richard Turner

Richard blogs at his own blog, Good Vibrations and is a volunteer and trustee for Action on Hearing Loss

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