Government decision on subtitles - April 2016

subtitle it paul breckell 

We are disappointed that, following its review, the Government has decided to take no substantial action to reduce the barriers faced by people with hearing loss when accessing video-on-demand services.

Read our response in our press release and tell us below if you agree or disagree with the Government's decision.

Take action now

The way we watch TV has transformed in recent years with the rise of ‘on demand’ and ‘catch-up’ TV, and, back in 2013, the Government promised it would “consider legislation” in three years’ time if it felt that not enough progress was being made to improve access services (subtitles, signing and audio description) on video-on-demand services.

Through the Subtitle it! campaign, launched in June 2015, over 3,000 of our supporters have told Minister Ed Vaizey that they feel excluded on a daily basis due to a lack of subtitles on video-on-demand content, and a similar number took part in research, launched in Parliament, showing that 9 out of 10 people with hearing loss want to see legislation being introduced to change this.

But, despite the strength of public feeling on this issue, the Government told us this week that it will not be introducing legislation or setting targets for broadcasters.

What does the Government’s response say?

Mr Vaizey has told us that, during autumn 2015, Department for Culture, Media and Sport officials met with platform operators, content providers and broadcasters, and that the discussions gave clarity into the problems limiting the availability of access services and what’s needed to improve provision levels.

The Minister has concluded that a lot has been achieved by broadcasters, content providers and platform operators towards increasing the provision of subtitles, and that “the 2013 commitment is being met”. He states that the introduction of legislation and the prescription of targets “could have a detrimental impact on what the sector has shown it is able to achieve on a voluntary basis”. In short, he has refused to take decisive action to end the digital exclusion faced by people with hearing loss due to the lack of subtitles.

Read Minister Ed Vaizey’s full response here (opens in new window, 1.3 MB PDF).

What progress is the Government talking about?

It has only been mandatory for video-on-demand providers to report on their provision of access services since 2014, and, between 2014 and 2015, we saw the number of providers offering access services increase from 17 to 22 (out of 90 providers) – a tiny improvement  of just 4%. Read all the reports from the regulator here.

The small improvement we have seen is in the number of providers offering subtitles on their own web players and on their apps and devices. While we have welcomed these improvements, we have seen very little progress in the accessibility of the major set top box operators, Sky, BT and Virgin.

We don’t agree with the Government’s assessment that sufficient progress is being made, and we have written an open letter to Ed Vaizey expressing our disappointment and asking for more details about the progress he is referring to.

Read more about progress and future plans by platform operators.

Failure to acknowledge problems within the industry

Mr Vaizey states that it was “encouraging to hear that several players throughout the supply chain of access services are working together” to overcome problems that limit the availability of access services.

In reaching this opinion Ed Vaizey has ignored the evidence of the regulator, ATVOD. They reported  that a “stalemate” persists between the broadcasters (content providers) who provide the programmes (e.g. ITV and UKTV) and the set top box operators (platforms) who pull together content from lots of different providers (e.g. Sky and Virgin), and a lack of clarity about whose responsibility it is to make content accessible. Find out more here.

We are extremely disappointed that the Government hasn’t used this opportunity to take action to end this standoff. We have therefore called on the Minister to demonstrate leadership on this issue by hosting an event with the industry outlining the way in which it wants the industry to overcome the barriers identified by the regulator, and to move toward better/full provision of access services. 

Is there any good news?

While the news is overwhelmingly disappointing, the Minister has told us that he will be contacting broadcasters, content providers and platform operators in Spring 2017 to request an update on what further progress has been made. We will be utilising this extended deadline to keep up the momentum of the Subtitle it! campaign.

When the Government cited industry progress, we believe they may have focused on the future plans that providers such as Sky, BT and Virgin have for making their platforms more accessible. While these plans are yet to come to fruition, we’ll be working hard with these providers to ensure that they turn into concrete improvements for people with hearing loss.  

Ed Vaizey has also written to broadcasters and set top box operators urging them to work closely with organisations including Action on Hearing Loss and the regulator Ofcom to “develop innovative solutions” to meet the needs of people with hearing loss. We will be proactively pushing these conversations forward, and have called on the Minister to take a leading role in driving engagement.

What are we doing now?

The Subtitle it! campaign doesn’t end here. We’ll be working closely with our campaigners and supportive parliamentarians, including the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness, to build on the awareness already generated by the campaign. It will also be vital to continue our engagement with the broadcasting industry and the regulator Ofcom.

We’ll be formulating our longer term strategy based on the outcome of the Government’s review, but here are some of the immediate steps we’re taking:

  • Today we issued a press release to the national media expressing our disappointment at the Government’s decision.
  • In an open letter to the broadcasting industry we will be calling on providers to continue to prioritise progress towards accessible on-demand services, and respond to the Government’s request to work with us, and each other, to find solutions.

We’d like to thank everyone who has supported Subtitle it! so far. Please take our simple action to tell us whether you agree or disagree with the Government’s response:

Take action now 

We’ll be in touch with further developments. If you’re not already signed up to receive emails from the campaigns team, you can do so here.

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