The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom this week published its first report on the quality of live subtitling, following a consultation which found viewers noting problems with speed, accuracy and presentation, and complaining that subtitles often appeared out of time with pictures.
Ofcom’s report on results from the first sampling exercises – reviewed by an independent team from the University of Roehampton – found that accuracy was “generally good, but rather variable”.
BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky looked at their own chat shows, news and entertainment programmes transmitted between October and November last year.
Accuracy varied across the three genres, but for news the average* was higher than 98 per cent, the quality threshold seen by the external reviewers as “acceptable”. But it was not as impressive for chat shows, with ITV’s average dipping beneath 98 per cent.
Results for “latency” – the gap in time between the words being spoken and appearing in the subtitles – were much worse.
Ofcom’s guidelines say there should be no more than a three-second gap, but the average was 75 per cent more, at 5.6 seconds, with some gaps up to 24 seconds.
The report says: “In most cases, long delays caused omissions and misreporting of information and facts, and loss of references to the images (photos or videos) appearing on the screen at the time of the original speech.”
Ofcom’s report welcomes broadcasters’ “significant” efforts to make greater use of blocks of subtitles – in which several words appear together, making it easier to read – rather than using subtitles that scroll across the screen.
But it says that broadcasters remain opposed to inserting short delays in live programmes in order to improve the quality of subtitling, even though they continue to use such delays for other editorial reasons, such as during coverage of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa.
The report says: “As the reasons for distinguishing between the interests of hearing-impaired viewers and viewers in general are not clear, Ofcom will seek further discussions with broadcasters.”
And Ofcom said it “remains concerned that a significant number” of pre-recorded programmes are provided to broadcasters too close to transmission to allow subtitles to be prepared in advance, resulting in lower quality subtitles.
Further reports are due to be published in the autumn and next spring, with a final report in autumn 2015, which will include recommendations for future action.
Lidia Best-Smolarek, chair of the National Association of Deafened People (NADP), welcomed the report.
But she said: “Sadly it has confirmed what organisations for deaf and hard-of-hearing people have been saying for many years, including NADP, which was actively involved in getting the monitoring implemented.
“Slow, lagging-behind subtitles make viewing experience unpleasant, leaving those who need access to subtitles disappointed.
“The way we can complain is not a simple process either and many viewers just give up on complaining directly to broadcasters.”
Best-Smolarek, who is also vice-president of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing People, said: “We are interested that the sampling has shown that the target figure for accuracy of 98 per cent is achieved so consistently, as those who rely on subtitles feel it is considerably lower on many occasions.
“We look forward to seeing if this is repeated in further sampling.”
Maria Zedda, managing director of the disability equality consultancy Wideaware Training, whose hearing loss means she depends on subtitles to understand television, said it was “important to acknowledge the effort of broadcasters who perhaps as recently as 10 years ago did not provide subtitling (or captioning) services with their broadcasts as often and with the same quality as today”.
But she said that much more could be done to improve viewers’ experiences.
She said Ofcom did not appear to understand clearly enough that subtitles benefitted other groups as well as those with hearing impairments, such as people whose first language was not English, children, and viewers of foreign language programmes and those in which an English-speaker’s accent made it hard to understand what they were saying.
She called on Ofcom to provide industry-wide guidelines that would “force production companies to sell TV programmes to broadcasters with sufficient time to provide subtitles or with subtitles already embedded in”.
She said the problems with latency and scrolling text could also easily be resolved through guidelines, and perhaps a “rewards system for compliance rather than fines for lack of provision”.
Zedda said the watchdog should not wait for further testing, but should act now.
*The report uses the median as the average, which shows the middle reading after putting all the results in order of size
1 May 2014