Ofcom finds Channel 4 breached licence conditions over subtitle problems
- C4 fell short of its subtitles quota on Freesat for 2021, following outage
- Communication with audiences during incident severely lacking
- Incident review finds broadcasters must improve disaster recovery plans
An Ofcom investigation has found Channel 4 breached the conditions of its broadcast licence following an extended outage of its subtitling, signing and audio description services.
These ‘access services’ are relied on by millions of people to watch and listen to television, including those who are deaf, have hearing loss, are blind or partially sighted.
Our investigation found that, as a result of an incident at a broadcast centre run by Red Bee Media, Freesat audiences who rely on subtitles were unable to fully access Channel 4 programmes for nearly two months.
Given this prolonged outage, the Channel 4 service fell short of the statutory requirement to subtitle 90% of its programme hours over 2021 on the Freesat service. Ofcom also found that Channel 4 breached another condition of its licence by failing to effectively communicate with affected audiences about the availability of access services in the weeks following the incident.
Our broader review of the broadcast centre incident has highlighted an urgent need for all broadcasters to improve and audit their disaster recovery plans. These must include clear communications plans in case of interruptions to services, which take into account different audiences and their particular needs.
In September 2021, Red Bee Media suffered a catastrophic failure at its West London broadcast centre following a release of fire-suppressant gas. This release caused a loud shockwave that damaged many of the servers beyond repair and required disaster recovery procedures to be activated.
The incident caused significant disruption to several broadcasters’ operations, including their access services. Channel 4 was the worst affected, with an extended outage of its access services on its broadcast channels that began on 25 September 2021 and was not fully resolved until 19 November 2021. Ofcom received around 500 complaints and launched an investigation earlier this year.
What we found
Our broader review of the broadcast centre incident found that Channel 4’s ability to respond to the technology failure at Red Bee was not sufficiently resilient, given its back-up subtitling system failed. It took four weeks for subtitles to be restored on Sky, Freeview, Youview and Virgin Media. It was another four weeks before subtitles were restored on Freesat.
As a result, Channel 4 fell short of its annual quota to subtitle 90% of programmes on Freesat – achieving only 85.41% - in breach of its licence conditions.
Broadcasters must also make audiences aware of the availability of access services. But we found serious failings and delays in Channel 4’s communications with affected audiences:
- Channel 4 did not provide any information about the cause of the outage or steps being taken to resolve it for 12 days following the incident;
- On-screen TV guides included inaccurate information about the availability of Channel 4 access services until 14 October 2021;
- Deaf viewers were likely to be among those most impacted by the outage, but Channel 4 did not provide any information to viewers in British Sign Language until 15 October 2021; and
- Channel 4 did not broadcast on-air advice and information about the outage until 15 October 2021, nearly three weeks after the outage began. Audiences who did not have access to Channel 4’s online information would have had no understanding about the scale of the issues or that the company was working to rectify them. We were particularly concerned about the impact on older, blind, or partially sighted access services users, whose access to online information may be more limited.
Channel 4 must now report to Ofcom by the end of this year on the steps it has taken to ensure greater resilience of its access services, as well as how it is continuing to improve the accessibility of its broadcast and on-demand programmes.
Lessons to be learned for all broadcasters
We recognise that the incident at Red Bee was unprecedented. It resulted in a lengthy outage to Channel 4’s access services provision and also wider disruption to its general broadcasts on all platforms. A number of other broadcasters were also affected, though to a lesser degree.
We have today also published our findings following a thorough review of the incident and made a number of recommendations that we expect broadcasters to act on, including:
- Broadcasters must improve their disaster recovery plans and processes. Disaster recovery facilities must be specified to carry access services, as well as sound and vision, and be regularly tested under simulated emergency conditions. Technical infrastructure should also be regularly audited to identify any potential vulnerabilities. Staff at all points in the transmission chain must be properly trained to correctly follow the disaster recovery procedures.
- Broadcasters must prepare effective communication plans in case of service interruptions. This includes taking into account the particular needs of the affected audience, and making use, as appropriate, of their own TV channels and not just social media to communicate with them.
We are reviewing our TV Technical Codes later this year and are considering what changes may be needed to shore up the delivery of access services, to bring them into line with sound and vision.
When things go wrong, broadcasters must have plans in place to restore important services, but also to let audiences know what they can expect. By failing to do this, Channel 4 let down people who use subtitles, signing or audio description to enjoy programmes.
"There are a number of lessons for broadcasters to learn from this incident. We've told them they must improve and test their back-up plans and infrastructure to minimise the risk of such a disruptive outage happening again.
Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director for Broadcasting
Notes to editors
Despite the autumn outage, Channel 4 met the statutory requirement to subtitle 90% of its programme hours over 2021 on other television platforms – largely by overperforming outside of the outage period. The broadcaster also met its annual requirements for audio description and signing for the Channel 4 service on all television platforms. Channel 4 Corporation’s other channels, such as E4 and More 4, have a lesser requirement to provide 80% of programming with subtitles which they met across all platforms.