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Ofcom to investigate Channel 4 over subtitle problems

Published: 28 January 2022
Last updated: 16 March 2023
  • C4 fell short of its subtitles quota on Freesat for 2021, following autumn outage
  • Broadcaster’s subtitles, audio description and signing were disrupted on all platforms
  • Ofcom to review how broadcasters provide these vital access services

Ofcom is to investigate Channel 4, following an extended outage last year of its subtitling, signing and audio description services.

These ‘access services’ are relied on by millions of people, including those who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and partially-sighted, to watch and listen to television.

What went wrong

In September 2021, an incident at a broadcast centre run by Red Bee Media caused significant disruption to several broadcasters’ operations, including their access services. Channel 4 was the worst affected, with an extended outage on its broadcast channels that began on 25 September 2021 and was not fully resolved until 19 November 2021.

Ofcom has established that, despite the autumn outage, Channel 4 managed to meet a statutory requirement to subtitle 90% of its programme hours over 2021 – largely by overperforming outside of the outage period. Channel 4 also met its requirements for audio description and signing. However, the outage caused Channel 4 to fall short of its subtitling quota on Freesat, a satellite TV platform used by around 2 million UK homes.

The quota is among those set by Parliament for access services that public-service broadcasters must meet, covering set proportions of their programme hours during the calendar year.

Given the lengthy outage to Channel 4’s access services, Ofcom has decided to launch an investigation into Channel 4’s under-provision of subtitles on the Freesat platform and the surrounding circumstances.

The investigation will include how far Channel 4 promoted awareness of the availability of its access services, across all its channels and platforms, during the period of the outage.

Wider review to ensure lessons are learned

Ofcom remains very concerned about the Red Bee incident. 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 less significant degree.

So as well as investigating Channel 4, Ofcom is undertaking a review of the transmission arrangements and backup facilities the affected broadcasters had in place at the time of the outage, and what changes they have made or planned as a result.

We will use the findings to ensure that steps are taken to avoid future such incidents having such a serious impact on viewers. We will also consider whether further regulatory action is needed to ensure reliable access services for audiences – no matter what incidents may occur to the infrastructure used to provide them.

These problems caused deep upset and frustration among the millions of people who rely on subtitles, signing or audio description to enjoy TV.

Channel 4 took several weeks to provide a clear, public plan and timeline for fixing the problems.

As well as investigating Channel 4, we’re reviewing the wider effects of the outage to make sure broadcasters learn lessons and protect access services in future.

Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director for Broadcasting

A BSL summary of our decision is available below.

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