Ofcom is to crack down on the often poor standard of subtitling of TV programmes, which have led to gaffes such as asking for “a moment’s violence” during the Queen Mother’s funeral, by introducing a six-monthly quality check that will name and shame broadcasters into improving their services.
Viewers are able to switch on a subtitles option for most TV programmes across 70 channels, with about 7.6 million UK adults saying they have used this service. Of these about 1.4 million people have hearing impairments and rely on the service.
Ofcom said on Friday that it continues to receive numerous complaints that there are problems with the speed, synchronisation, accuracy and presentation of live TV subtitling, as it put proposals out to consultation aimed at getting broadcasters to raise their game.
The broadcasting regulator offered examples to highlight the issue – in ITV’s Loose Women a conversation is shown with the subtitles saying “see engle Bert humper distinct”, and in a second shot a BBC Weather presenter was subtitled as saying “they would be a few more mist and Fox patches”.
One BBC gaffe in 2011, when a reporter whose comment “pigs nibble anything, even wellies” took on a radically different meaning when the last word was subtitled “willies”, became a Twitter sensation and fuelled a Mock the Week subtitles gaffe segment.
During the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002, the solemn words “We’ll now have a moment’s silence for the Queen Mother” became “We’ll now have a moment’s violence for the Queen Mother” in one BBC broadcast.
Under current rules a broadcaster only has to provide Ofcom with information on the amount of subtitling it provides, not the quality.
Under the new proposals published on Friday, Ofcom intends to publish a report every six months that will measure speed, accuracy, the delay between speech being broadcast and subtitled text appearing on screen, and the number of programmes that are delivered too late to prepare accurate subtitling in advance and must rely on live work that is inevitably lower quality.
Ofcom said that having a regular report that ranks broadcasters on subtitling performance will “highlight problem areas and incentivise [them] to make improvements”.
“Ofcom wants to see an improvement in the quality of subtitling on live programmes for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing,” said Claudio Pollack, consumer group director at Ofcom. “Our proposals will help identify the areas where broadcasters can make progress, leading to a better viewing experience over time.”
Under Ofcom’s broadcasting code a broadcaster must provide subtitling if it attracts a viewing share of more than 0.05% of total viewing.
Ofcom says that 70 channels provide subtitling across 80% or more of their programming.