Television and on-demand programme services: Access services report 2021 (Channel 4)

Published: 28 January 2022
Last updated: 16 March 2023


Ofcom has decided to launch an investigation, following an extended outage last year of Channel 4’s subtitling, audio description and signing (collectively known as ‘access services’).

Although Channel 4 still met most of its annual statutory quotas for access services in 2021, the broadcaster fell short of its quota for subtitles on the Freesat satellite platform. As well as investigating this, and the circumstances surrounding it, we are conducting a broader review of the transmission arrangements and backup facilities that Channel 4 and other affected broadcasters had in place at the time of the outage.

In September 2021, following an incident at Red Bee Media’s broadcast centre, a number of broadcasters suffered significant disruption to their broadcast operations, including their provision of access services (subtitling, signing and audio description). In relation to access services, Channel 4 was the most seriously affected, with an extended outage that began on 25 September 2021 and was not fully resolved until 19 November 2021.

Due to the significance of the issue and the time it took to resolve, we have brought forward publication of the data provided by Channel 4 setting out the level of provision of subtitling, signing and audio description on Channel 4 channels in 2021 against their requirements.

The level of access services that certain channels must provide was set by Parliament under the Communications Act 2003. These channels must ensure that minimum proportions of their total programming hours offer certain access services. The legislation makes clear these must be calculated over a 12-month period.

The quotas and actual performance of Channel 4’s services in 2021, are set out below.

ChannelAnnual quota (minimum)Achieved in 2021 (Freesat)Achieved in 2021 (across other platforms)
Channel 490%





Channel 4 must provide at least 90% of its content with subtitles. The other channels in its portfolio (E4, More4, Film4, and 4seven) must provide at least 80% of their content with subtitles.

In spite of the outage, across most television platforms (e.g. Freeview, Sky and Virgin), Channel 4 was able to meet its 2021 subtitling requirements on its channels. This is because it typically overperformed against the statutory quota outside of the outage period, by providing 100% of programming with subtitles.

However, although subtitling services were restored on these platforms on 22 October 2021, services were not fully restored on the Freesat platform until 19 November 2021. Therefore, we have also published the percentage of programming provided with subtitling on the Freesat platform separately.

E4, More4, Film4 and 4seven, which all have an 80% subtitling quota, did meet their annual requirement. But on Channel 4, which has a 90% requirement, only 85.41% of programming had subtitles on Freesat – an under-provision of just under 5 percentage points.

The purpose of these requirements is to set a minimum level of access services provision for broadcasters each year. The intention is that channels provide a broadly consistent degree of provision over the course of the year, prioritising the provision of access services on those programmes that would result in the greatest audience benefit.

In this case, no subtitling was available on all Channel 4 broadcast services for a period of four weeks, with Freesat viewers affected for eight weeks. The scale of this outage was unprecedented and resulted in deep upset and frustration among viewers who rely on subtitles. Several hundred viewers contacted Ofcom to express their concern, particularly about what they considered to be a lack of information about what was being done to rectify the issue, and how long this may take.

Taking all the relevant factors into account, Ofcom has decided to launch a formal investigation into the under-provision and the surrounding circumstances. This will be conducted in line with the relevant procedures (PDF, 296.7 KB).

The investigation will consider the extent to which Channel 4 met the legislative quotas, which are set out in more detail in our Code on Television Access Services. It will also consider whether Channel 4 met a requirement, included in Section Six of the Access Code, to promote awareness of the availability of its access services generally during the period of the outage. We will publish the outcome of our investigation as soon as possible.

ChannelAnnual quota (minimum)Achieved in 2021
Channel 410%36.27%

All of Channel 4’s services must provide at least 10% of their programming hours with audio description. However, Channel 4 has made a voluntary commitment to provide at least 20% and typically well exceeds this. As a result, despite the lengthy outage of audio description across Channel 4’s services between 25 September and 19 November 2021, all channels met their legal requirement. However, we will be reviewing the circumstances of this outage, and what steps have been taken to prevent any recurrence, as set out under ‘Next steps’ below.

ChannelAnnual quota (minimum)Achieved in 2021
Channel 45%5.27%

Channel 4 and E4 must provide 5% of their programming hours with signing. (Channel 4’s other portfolio services, More4, Film4 and 4Seven deliver their signing support through a financial contribution to the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust.)

Signing services on these channels were also severely disrupted by the access services outage, with no signing broadcast between 25 September and 19 November. Although both channels did meet their signing quota over 2021 as a whole, given the extended nature of the outage and the significant impact on audiences, we will conduct a review of what occurred and how any recurrence can be avoided, as set out under ‘Next steps’ below.

Next steps

Ofcom has decided to launch an investigation into Channel 4’s under-provision of subtitles on the Freesat platform and the surrounding circumstances, including the extent to which Channel 4 promoted the awareness of the availability of its access services across all its channels and platforms during the period of the outage.

Although we recognise that Channel 4 did meet its other requirements, as a result of over-performance outside of the period of the outage, we remain concerned about this incident. It resulted in a lengthy outage to Channel 4’s access services provision and also wider disruption to its general broadcasts. A number of other broadcasters were also affected by the incident at Red Bee Media, though to a less significant degree.

So we are also undertaking a review of the transmission arrangements and backup facilities that Channel 4 and the other affected broadcasters had in place at the time of the outage, and what changes they have made as a result. We will use the findings of this review to ensure that steps are taken to avoid future such incidents. We will also consider whether further regulatory action may be required to ensure a reliable access services provision remains in place for audiences, no matter what incidents may occur to the broadcast infrastructure that is used to provide them.

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