On-demand platforms need to improve their accessibility
Comment on the broadcasting industry from Patricia Hodgson, Ofcom Chairman.
When Terry Wogan hosted Blankety Blank on a September weekday in 1979, few viewers could have known the show was among the world’s first to carry optional subtitles. It was a breakthrough for the BBC’s teletext engineers, who had pioneered the service for people with hearing impairments.
Since then, of course, television has been transformed again by technology. Today, around 44% of UK viewers watch TV on demand, over the internet.
But that falls to 28% among those with a visual or hearing problems. Similarly, four in ten adults watch a subscription on-demand service, compared to fewer than two in ten people with a visual impairment.
The reason is that technology has not kept pace with these viewers’ needs. More than two thirds of on-demand TV providers do not provide any ‘access services’ – either subtitles, signing or audio description.
So broadcasters must do more. Great strides have been made by theatres, churches and universities in reaching live audiences through loop technology. I believe it’s equally important that people with impairments can fully engage with television, which plays such an important role in social, cultural and family inclusion.
Aside from the clear moral imperative, broadcasters are missing a huge potential audience. One in five adults in the UK suffers a hearing impairment. Some 7.5 million people use subtitles, but just 700,000 use audio description and signing services.
We have seen good progress on traditional television. Ofcom rules mean that the main broadcasters, who account for 90% of viewing, must offer access services. But I want to see faster progress in two areas.
First, broadcasters must improve the accessibility of catch-up and on-demand services.
Action on Hearing Loss has campaigned effectively in this area, helping to bring about new powers which allow the Government to draft specific regulations. And Ofcom is gathering evidence to inform these rules. We’ve been talking to consumer groups and industry to make sure changes are effective, proportionate and flexible.
Second, we expect industry to keep improving the quality of subtitles. We’ve been reporting on this area for some time, and we’re working with consumer groups and broadcasters to highlight the challenges of improving subtitles further.
My personal view is that pre-recorded programmes should have pre-recorded subtitles. The live technology causes delays and inaccuracies which mean the programmes are not enjoyable.
I am optimistic about what can be achieved. We have the most creative broadcasting industry in the world; the British public have never enjoyed programmes of such quality and diversity, live and on-demand.
We need every viewer to be part of that. Broadcasters have shown what they can achieve when they push the boundaries of technology. Now they have the opportunity to prove it again.