Television access services

20 March 2006



1.1 Television access services (subtitling, signing and audio description) help people with hearing and / or visual impairments to understand and enjoy television. Subtitling for hearing impaired viewers consists of display of dialogue and sound effects in text form at the bottom of the television screen; users have the option to turn it on or off. Audio description comprises a separate audio track in which a narrator uses spaces in the original sound track to describe what is going on for the benefit of people with visual impairments; like subtitling, it can be turned on or off. Signed television programmes incorporate the image of a signer translating dialogue and sound effects into sign language for the benefit of those who use it to communicate.

1.2 On 29 December 2003, that part of the Communications Act 2003 dealing with the provision of subtitling, signing and audio description (television access services) on television came into force. The Act says that Ofcom must publish and from time to time review a code setting out how applicable television services should promote the understanding and enjoyment of television by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or blind or partially-sighted, or who have a dual sensory impairment (deafblind). The Act prescribes quotas for the subtitling (80%), signing (5%) and audio description (10%) of programmes to be reached by the tenth anniversary of the relevant date for each channel, as well as a subtitling quota to be reached by the fifth anniversary (60%). The Code is also to set out the types of programmes to be exempted from access service obligations (which may include all the programmes included in a channel). The detailed obligations were set out in Ofcom’s Code on Television Access Service , which we published in July 2004.

1.3 At that time, we explained that we would review the Code within two years in order to take account of research into how many people were benefiting from access services, how many more could do so, and why they were not using them. We also wanted to see whether changes would be appropriate in the light of experience. We also said that we would take the opportunity to look again at the guidance to providers of access services on how to subtitle, sign and audio describe television programmes.

Research and analysis

1.4 Ofcom began planning the research in early 2004. Before commissioning further research, we talked to organisations representing the interests of sensory impaired people, to broadcasters and to access service providers about the type of questions that we should aim to answer. While it was not feasible within the framework of the research to deal with all the questions that were raised, these discussions proved very helpful to finalising the research brief. We would like to thank all those organisations who took part.

1.5 Our objectives, established after discussion with disability groups, broadcasters and access service providers, were to establish how many people stood to benefit from the different access services, to measure usage and barriers to use, and to understand the needs and preferences of users and potential users.

1.6 The first step was to commission a review of existing literature to establish what relevant research had been carried out in recent years, so that we could examine the extent to which further original research was required. The review found that, while there had been a significant amount of research in the field of hearing and visual impairments, it was understandably patchy in relation to its significance for television access services, and that there were a number of areas where further research was required in order to meet Ofcom’s objectives. The full report can be seen on Ofcom’s website , and the key findings are summarised in section 2.

1.7 In the light of the literature review, Ofcom commissioned some additional independent research. There were two components to the research. The first consisted of quantitative research into the numbers of people across the UK with sensory impairments, their awareness of television access services, and the extent to which they used them. The second comprised qualitative case studies with people with sensory impairments, in order to gain a better understanding of their experiences in using access services, and to shed light on why some of them did not use such services.

1.8 The results from the qualitative research are indicative rather than representative, as respondents were deliberately weighted towards those with more significant sensory impairments in order to understand their experiences better. Moreover, while the results from this research shed a great deal of useful light on the potential for television access services, the results are not intended to have wider significance. For example, the measurement of how many people had relevant sensory impairments was focused mainly on the extent to which impairments affected people’s ability to watch television without making adjustments or relying on television access services. The qualitative research had a similar emphasis. Accordingly, the results should be read in the context of the provision of television access services, rather than more widely.

1.9 On the basis of the quantitative research, the researchers concluded that most people were aware of subtitles, and about 7.5 million people had used them to watch television, of whom about 6 million did not have a hearing impairment. Of the 4 million or so people with hearing impairments, about three quarters had mild hearing impairments, and many of them simply turned up the volume of their TV in order to hear better. About 1.4 million had used subtitles. Results from the qualitative case studies suggested that subtitles were regarded as generally very effective in making programmes understood, although there was some concern that live subtitling in particular was too fast, and suffered from delay and inaccuracies.

1.10 The researchers found that there are about 1 million people who claimed to have used audio description, of whom about 220,000 had visual impairments. However, as section 3 explains, there is some doubt about these figures due to the evident misunderstanding of some respondents about what audio description was. Only about 30% of visually-impaired people were aware of audio description. Of the 2.7 million people with visual impairments, about three quarters had mild visual impairments, and adopted techniques such as moving closer to the television or adjusting lighting. Results from the case studies found that those who had used audio description regarded it as very helpful in understanding programmes better, and that a significant proportion of respondents who had not used audio description were keen to try it.

1.11 Research into the numbers of people who had used signing to watch television also suffered from misunderstanding; it was evident from their comments that many respondents equated having watched signed programmes with using signing to watch television, even though many did not understand enough signing to use it. About a million people claimed to have used signing to watch television, but of these, only about 66,000 had a reasonable understanding of sign language. More significantly, two thirds of hearing impaired people in the case studies with the strongest signing skills preferred expressed a preference for subtitling over signing. It is difficult to be sure how many people actually rely upon signing to watch television, but there is a distinct possibility that the number is significantly smaller than those who understand signing well enough to use it.

1.12 The research produced a great deal of useful and interesting data, of which the key findings are summarised in section 2, and more detail is given in the report on Ofcom’s website . Perhaps the most important finding is that, in general, television is just as important to people with sensory impairments as to those without. Indeed, people with hearing and / or visual impairments watch rather more television than the average viewer. Access services are highly valued by users, and help viewers with sensory impairments to continue to understand and enjoy a wide range of television programmes.

Current situation

1.13 Since the Code was published, there has been a step change in the number of channels providing television access services. 70 channels were required to provide access services in 2005, and the number required to do so rose to 76 for 2006, though two of these channels have since closed. All of the channels exceeded (in many cases substantially) their obligations to provide one or other of the access services, and a large majority met their obligations in full. Many channels chose to provide a higher level of access services than required under the Code (particularly subtitling), which Ofcom welcomes. We have accepted undertakings from broadcasters which missed targets for audio description and signing, that they will make up the shortfall this year, on top of their targets for 2006.

1.14 Ofcom is pleased to note that all channels subject to the Code now provide subtitling and signing on the digital terrestrial, cable and satellite platforms, that audio description is available on almost all satellite versions of these channels (and will be made available on the remainder during 2006), and that audio description is also being enabled on cable services, thanks to work carried out by ntl and Telewest in co-operation with broadcasters.

1.15 Before the Code came into force, not all electronic programme guides (EPGs) provided information on whether a programme had subtitling, signing and audio description and those that did used different ways to describe the access services. Following a consultation with interested parties, Ofcom amended both the Code on Television Access Services and the EPG Code to require that EPGs provide accurate information using standard acronyms. We are pleased that all the major television listings magazines have agreed to use the same acronyms, and that most national and many regional and newspapers have followed suit.

1.16 EPG providers are required to make an annual statement of the steps they have taken and are taking to improve ease of use for viewers with visual and / or hearing impairments. Significant improvements made over the last two years include the ability to highlight programmes with subtitling or audio description in the Sky EPG, while new ‘Help’ features make it easier to switch subtitling and audio description on and off during programmes. ntl’s EPG has been redesigned to improve ease of use for visually-impaired viewers and to make it easier for digital subtitles to be turned on and off.

1.17 Many deaf and hard of hearing youngsters can enjoy music as a result of residual hearing or sensing the underlying rhythms, but their appreciation could be significantly enhanced by the ability to see the lyrics. For some years, copyright issues have prevented the subtitling of most music programmes. Ofcom has worked with the Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) and music channels to find a way around these difficulties and is pleased that the MPA and its members have agreed to devise a licence that will allow music channels to subtitle music videos copyrighted by its members. Ofcom looks forward to the provision of much more subtitling on music programmes than has been possible to date.

1.18 Despite the substantial increase in the number of subtitled channels, the number of complaints about subtitling problems remains relatively modest. Some of these problems stem from the fact that digital broadcasting remains a relatively new technology – as the technology matures, such problems are likely to diminish. Nonetheless, any problems that interfere with the enjoyment and understanding of a television programme can be frustrating. As section 3 explains in more detail, Ofcom has worked closely with broadcasters and others to identify and resolve any systematic problems, and will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Review of the Code

1.19 In the statement we published in July 2004 , we committed to reviewing several aspects of the Code within 18-24 months of publication. In particular, we said that we would look at the mechanism for selecting channels to provide access services, and the costs to broadcasters of providing access services given the significant increase in obligations that many will face from 2007.

1.20 Having reviewed the use of audience share as the general basis for selecting the channels which would provide the greatest audience benefit, Ofcom remains of the view that it is an appropriate method. Feedback from access service users suggests that there is no great divergence in viewing preferences between people with hearing and / or visual impairments and those without. In any case, many such people share households with viewers who do not have impairments. Audience share also has the merits of transparency, of using information that is already collected and of incorporating a mechanism to reflect changing viewing patterns.

1.21 Against the background of Code targets that require a substantial increase in subtitling (from 10% to 35%) from the beginning of 2007, we asked broadcasters to provide information on the costs incurred in providing television access services. It is clear from their responses that there has been a significant drop in the price of subtitling, and lesser reductions in the price of signing and audio description services. Using an average price derived from broadcasters’ returns and modelling the impact of the quotas that will apply from 2007 onwards, we concluded that the net effect is that most broadcasters will be able to sustain the cost of meeting these targets within the 1% cap on relevant turnover. Having regard to this, we also concluded that it was not necessary to raise the audience threshold of 0.05%, and that it would not be appropriate to lower it, as it would deliver little benefit to viewers, while being burdensome for broadcasters.

1.22 In the light of evidence indicating that the current approach to signing on TV may not be meeting the needs of sign language users, and that it imposes costs on smaller broadcasters that do not give rise to any significant benefits, Ofcom considers that further discussion is required with sign language users and broadcasters about whether continuing with the current arrangements is sensible, or whether there are alternatives that might better meet their needs. At the same time, Ofcom would need to think carefully how best to balance the statutory requirements to ensure that broadcasters meet sign language requirements with its obligation to have regard to the number of persons likely to benefit from such assistance, and the extent of the likely benefit to them. To this end, Ofcom will consult with disability organisations representing the interests of the hearing impaired and those with dual sensory impairments, as well as broadcasters, to identify and examine possible options. None of these is likely to be without both advantages and disadvantages, and these need to be thoroughly aired before any alternatives to the current arrangements are proposed. In the light of these discussions and feedback from interested parties, Ofcom would expect to carry out a further consultation on alternatives before taking any decisions.

1.23 We have not reviewed the interim targets set out in the Code; these were established after extensive public debate, including clear indications that it was Parliament’s expectation that interim targets should be set rising gradually towards the statutory targets. As regards the statutory target for audio description, we believe that it would be better to review this when the scale of take-up is clearer.

1.24 We have also taken the opportunity of the review to propose a few changes to the Code, which on the whole are relatively minor. These are explained in more detail in section 5. In the light of discussions with broadcasters, one change we propose is to make clear that for the purposes of the Code, channels should be regarded as being in common ownership with one or more other channels if each channel is a subsidiary (within the meaning of the Companies Act 1985) of a common holding company or if they share a common parent at any point in the chain of ownership which has a majority interest in each. More detail on this and other proposed changes is given in section 4.

Review of standards

1.25 When Ofcom published the code, we said that at the first review, we would look again at the guidance on standards for access services which has not been reviewed for several years. In reviewing the guidelines, we talked to people with hearing and / or visual impairments, as well as organisations representing the interests of deaf people, and access service providers. We also took account of feedback from users about programmes with access services over the course of the last 18 months.

1.26 The standards enshrined in the original guidance are clearly valued by users – feedback suggested that many see the standards as a guarantee of quality. Accordingly, we have retained the essence of these standards in the draft guidance. However, there was general agreement that the original guidelines for audio description and subtitling were very detailed, and resembled training manuals for what were then relatively new services. We have therefore taken the opportunity to simplify the draft guidance, while providing links to more detailed reference material.

1.27 The main substantive changes that are proposed are the endorsement of current font sizes for subtitles as appropriate, notwithstanding that they are smaller than current guidance would suggest and the proposal to allow faster subtitling for pre-recorded programmes; we also propose to dispense with limits on the speed of live subtitling, on grounds of practicability. In addition, we also seek views on whether, on signed TV programmes, the image of the signer should occupy a large proportion of the screen than is currently suggested.

The consultation

1.28 We would welcome views on all aspects of the Code and the Guidance before the consultation closes on 8 June 2006. More details of how to respond are given in Annex 1, and Ofcom’s consultation principles are set out in Annex 2. The specific questions on which we are seeking views are set out in the consultation document, and repeated in Annex 4.

1.29 A copy of this document in a format suitable for use by screen readers has been posted on Ofcom’s website. Ofcom can also provide documents to individuals in alternative formats (e.g. Braille, audiotape or large print) on request. We may also provide translations of documents into languages other than English. To request non-standard versions of documents, please contact the Ofcom Contact Centre at, by phone at 0845 456 3000 or 020 7981 3040, or by textphone at 0845 456 3003. Please note that the time needed to produce an alternative format document will depend on the length of the document.