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      Subtitle it Q&A

      The way we watch TV has changed dramatically in recent years with the rise in popularity of catch-up TV. However, on-demand content often isn’t subtitled, which means people who are deaf or have hearing loss are left out.

      Michelle with subtitles

      Our Subtitle It campaign launched in 2015 and aimed to change this. Thanks to the efforts of our fantastic campaigners, the government amended the Digital Economy Act (2017), paving the way for on-demand content becoming more accessible for people with hearing loss.

      So now we’ve changed the law, when can we expect to see subtitles on more on-demand content? We’ve put together this Q&A to answer all your burning questions, including a glossary of some of the terms we use.


      The Act was passed two years ago, so why don’t all programmes have subtitles?

      The initial legislation was passed but legal change is slow. The Digital Economy Act (2017) is a piece of primary legislation that enables the government to regulate the accessibility of on-demand TV, which includes the provision of subtitles. The Act states that on-demand TV should be more accessible but doesn’t say how this should be done. For example, the primary legislation doesn’t say what percentage of programmes should be subtitled. Another piece of legislation, known as secondary legislation, is therefore needed to provide more detail of how on-demand TV should be accessible.

      What is Ofcom’s role?

      Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, is the body that will be regulating the Act and making sure that on-demand TV providers adhere to it. In 2018 Ofcom held a consultation about what the regulations should look like, and invited people and organisations who would be affected by the change to get involved, such as on-demand service providers and TV viewers. Through the consultation, Ofcom looked at arguments surrounding costs and benefits of having subtitles to reach a decision on how the regulations should look. We responded to this consultation, incorporating the views of people with hearing loss. Ofcom cannot create the legislation as that is the role of the government. Following its consultation, Ofcom made recommendations to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DDCMS), which is responsible for shaping the law.

      What has Ofcom recommended?

      Ofcom has recommended that within four years of the secondary legislation passing, 80% of on-demand content will have to be subtitled. Within two years of the legislation Ofcom have recommended targets of 40%, so there is some progress for the viewer. Some on-demand programme providers may be exempt from the targets or have them reduced. How these exemptions will be enforced will be included in a code that Ofcom will publish along with the regulations (see 'when will I see the changes take place? ’, for more information).

      Now Ofcom has set out quotas, do providers have to start complying with these?

      Not yet. Ofcom has completed a consultation through which it has listened to views from providers and people affected by the legislation. Ofcom’s recommendations are now being considered by the government. See our step-by-step guide below that shows what needs to happen before providers are obliged to begin adding subtitles to their content. 

      What will the DDCMS do with Ofcom’s recommendations?

      The DDCMS will review Ofcom’s recommendations, meet with organisations and people who the consultation affects, and gather their views on the proposals. The government department will also complete an Impact Assessment, which will assess Ofcom's recommendations and whether they are proportionate and reasonable for providers to comply with. The DDCMS will then make the final decision as to whether they accept the recommendations, and draft the secondary legislation. If the government decide not to follow Ofcom's recommendations, they may consult on the secondary legislation. The government will then seek to pass the secondary legislation that will embed targets in law.

      When will the secondary legislation be passed?

      Before a law passes, it goes through a process of scrutiny to make sure it is robust, and this can take some time. There might be other checks and balances in place before the law passes, for example the government could consult again on the secondary legislation if they don't agree with Ofcom's recommendations. There may also be other demands on parliamentary time, which could impact when the legislation comes into force. If the process all goes smoothly, the legislation should pass within a year of it being drafted.

      When will I see the changes take place?

      Once the secondary legislation has been passed, Ofcom will create a code. The code will outline how the exemptions will be enforced in practice.

      After Ofcom has written a first draft of the code, they will open it up to a public consultation and will use these responses to draft a final code. Once this code is finalised the regulations will come into force. Should Ofcom’s recommendations be accepted in full by the government, from the moment the code is published, on-demand providers affected by the regulations will have four years to achieve their full quotas, and two years to achieve interim targets.

      Further questions? Please email us at

      Glossary of terms

      What is the difference between primary and secondary legislation?

      Primary legislation is the initial Act of Parliament that makes something law.

      Secondary legislation contains additional powers, cover gaps or implements changes to the original primary legislation.

      For Subtitle It, the primary legislation is the Digital Economy Act (2017) that gave the government the powers to regulate on-demand content. As this original legislation does not cover what targets broadcasters need to adhere to when providing subtitles, secondary legislation will be published to expand upon this and add more detail.

      What is an on-demand programme services provider?

      The regulations are applicable to what Ofcom call: "on-demand programme services providers" (ODPS providers). These are companies that run on-demand services. For example, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 are ODPS providers.

      What is a service?

      A service is a collection of programmes and the service provider has editorial control over what appears. For example, NowTV and All4 are services. For example, YouTube does not have editorial control, so it is a platform rather than a service.

      What is a platform?

      A platform is how you watch a TV programme. For instance, the service ITV Hub is available on platforms such as a smartphone app or an app on your Smart TV.

      Step-by-step guide

      Our step-by-step guide of when providers will have to legally supply subtitles for on-demand content: 

      Subtitle it Q&A
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