A new government bill should lead to streaming services having to meet strict quotas on providing programmes with audio description, subtitles and audio description for the first time, but disabled journalists say the legislation should do more to tackle inequality.
MPs this week debated the government’s media bill, which also includes a wide range of other measures on broadcasting and newspapers and appears to have broad cross-party support.
Among the measures proposed by the government are new quotas for the scores of streaming platforms regulated by the communications watchdog Ofcom, such as Disney+, Amazon Prime, catch-up services run by public service broadcasters such as Channel 4, and many smaller, lesser-known platforms.
This would mean they would each have to provide subtitles for 80 per cent of their programmes, while 10 per cent would have to include audio description and five per cent would need to be accompanied by British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation.
There are currently no laws that oblige on-demand platforms to provide these access services.
Ofcom reported in May that, of those regulated on-demand providers that responded to its survey, only 82.4 per cent provided subtitles on any of their programmes, 14.3 per cent provided BSL, and just 22.4 per cent offered any audio description.
Of those that did provide access services, 72 per cent of programming hours were subtitled in 2022 (up from 66 per cent in 2021), with 15 per cent of hours offering audio description (down from 17 per cent in 2021) and just two per cent of hours were provided with BSL (2.3 per cent compared with 2.0 per cent in 2021).
Campaigners have been waiting for years for the government to act on quotas.
It has had powers since 2017 through the Digital Economy Act to impose quotas on on-demand providers, but failed to use those powers. The new legislation would finally make quotas law.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) welcomed some of the measures, but it called on the government to go further.
Dr Natasha Hirst, NUJ president and disabled members’ representative, said: “Although there are some important improvements to access being proposed in this long overdue bill, they need to be more ambitious with this.
“This is the opportunity to get it right.
“Our disabled members’ council will be working through the union’s cross-party parliamentary group to reinforce points about the importance of access for achieving disability equality and accessibility on media platforms and streaming services.
“We are also flagging disability representation – both in front of and behind the camera – and we will call for the Ofcom code to apply to video-on-demand services to tackle discrimination against disabled people.”
Sir John Whittingdale, the media minister, told Disability News Service in a statement on Tuesday: “People who are blind, partially sighted or have hearing impairments, should be able to access their favourite TV and radio shows, no matter where or how they choose to tune in.
“Our media bill, being debated in parliament today, will modernise the UK’s decades-old broadcasting rules, requiring video-on-demand streaming giants to meet subtitling, audio description and signing requirements that traditional broadcasters already follow.
“This means Britain’s estimated 12 million people with hearing impairments and 350,000 who are blind or partially sighted will be able to better enjoy world-class content on-demand.
“New rules in the bill will also secure the ongoing availability of licensed UK radio stations on voice-activated smart speakers, ensuring blind or partially sighted listeners can continue to easily tune in to British programming on their connected devices.”
Picture: Sir John Whittingdale (left) and Dr Natasha Hirst
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