The Future of subtitling – TV and Broadcasting conference

Cloes-up shot of subtitles on a television screenDonna Corrigan

On Monday 10 November, Joff McGill (Sense’s Head of Information, Advice and Research) and I attended an event in London focusing on the future of subtitling. It attracted, TV broadcasters such as the BBC, Subtitle producers such as Ericsson Broadcast & Media services (formerly known as Red Bee), organisations representing people with hearing and visual impairments such as Sense , Action on Hearing Loss and the National Deaf Children’s Society  as well as individuals with an interest in the subject. It was well attended, and as such created an excellent forum for informative and useful discussion.

The mornings presentations and panel discussion were dedicated to the “Quality of subtitling – Where will we see improvements?” with Peter Bourton the Head of TV Content Policy at Ofcom, David Padmore Head of Access Services at Ericsson Broadcast & Media Services and Dr Pablo Romero-Fresco  from the University of Roehampton presenting. Earlier this year Ofcom instigated a project sampling live subtitling in a selection of British television programmes ( News, Chat shows and Entertainment), investigating their quality in terms of accuracy, speed, latency and presentation. Ofcom have just released the second report that can be found here. In addition S4/C are currently experimenting with introducing a 25 second delay in live broadcasts to assist with improving the quality of subtitles (something that other countries do regularly) and more information about the outcome of these tests will be available shortly.

Dr Pablo Romero Fresco, a lead researcher in the field and the creator of the NER model. Ofcom uses to measure quality of subtitles started off showing UK are leading the way in terms of subtitle accuracy compared to  Switzerland, France and Spain. Additionally he spoke about his work with the film industry where makers currently invest just 0.01 per cent in subtitles yet it provides 57 per cent of profit. Consequently he and his colleagues are pushing for early collaboration in the film making process to increase and improve the subtitles offered by the film industry.

A panel discussion took place answering pre-submitted and live questions from the audience. The need for flexible customization was raised by Sense trustee, Roy Staines, who highlighted how people have different preferences and needs when it comes to subtitles and that the best way to optimize accessibility for all is to offer full customizability, giving the consumer the option to select  font size, type, colour, placement, speed, etc. In response, panel members advised that   that Panasonic who started offering more accessible Smart TV’s with their “Voice Guidance” system back in 2012 have just completed a proof of concept allowing the user to adjust the size of the subtitle so this may be available sooner than we thought. We also know that Netflix has integrated its app with Apple TV to use the customisation features in Apple’s operating system, allowing users to customise subtitles. And in follow up after the conference, ATVoD have agreed to ask their technical working group to put customisation on their agenda.

The afternoon focussed on “Subtitling on Video on Demand (VOD) – What does success look like?” in particular the need to increase the amount of subtitling available. The audience heard from Tanvir Ahmed and Laura Matthews both from Action on Hearing Loss, Gareth Ford Williams Head of Accessibility, User experience and Design at BBC future media and Peter Johnson CEO of ATVOD (Authority for Television on Demand).

Gareth Ford Williams spoke passionately and knowledgably about subtitling and revealed that 5 per cent, (that’s 500,000) views per day through BBC iPlayer have subtitles switched on and that is significantly raising the profile of this need. However he advised that they receive very few comments and complaints about the subtitles they offer in their VoD services and encourage individuals to get in touch using accessibility.team@bbc.co.uk see this webpage for more contact options. When they suffer difficulties or have comments to make and the subtitles offered by their services. Remember that if you are gaining to submit a complaint to be as specific as possible, be prepared to provide detailed information about when you experienced the problem and what the problems were. The technology team at Sense can support you with making a complaint please get in touch using technology@ense.org.uk

ATVOD are tasked by government to encourage service providers to increase accessibility for people with vision and hearing impairment. It was good to hear confirmation that “there are no fundamental technical barriers to the provision of subtitles in on demand context”. However what is still unclear is while the progress that ATVOD has made will be reviewed by government in 2016 which could result in regulation, “progress” has not been defined and as a result measuring it will surely be extremely challenging when the time comes. Laura Matthews confirmed that the views offered by those attending the event will be collated and submitted to help push for clarification.

The event was organised by Sense, Action on Hearing Loss and UK Council on deafness and it successfully brought together many interested parties and expertise in this area. Together and as a result of the conference a report will be written supporting the issues discussed today and used to further improve access and quality of Subtitles in the UK.

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