What’s the State of Subtitling in the VOD Marketplace?

1 in 6 people in the UK suffer from some form of hearing loss. What are service providers doing to cater for those hard of hearing?

Last week when watching Transparent on Amazon Prime I remembered with a jolt of alarm that I had been tasked to hoover the flat, something I had (obviously) neglected to do. Knowing if I didn’t complete my task I would be left to find somewhere else to sleep that night, I queued up the next the episode, dusted off the hoover and looked to turn on subtitles so I could carry on watching whilst living the hell that is housekeeping.

Unfortunately this was not to be. No matter where I looked I was unable to find any semblance of accessibility features. No subtitling, no closed captioning. Surely I was missing something? Discarding the vacuum I went on a mission to examine APIV across platforms, including web, mobile, tablet and games consoles, to see if it was a one-off. It was not. Amazon does not currently support subtitling on any of its programming (including its originals).

A quick look at our online research tool the Video User Interface Library shows that the e-commerce giant is not alone. Only 39% of the 400+ VOD products we track currently offer accessibility features to its customers, a shocking number considering that there are more than 10 million people in the UK alone who suffer from some form of hearing loss. 

In the following paragraphs I’ve aimed to give a brief overview of the current state of subtitling in the VOD marketplace, the challenges faced in their input and why they are important to include in your service.

#1.  The Big Picture            

Are there any legal regulations surrounding the inclusion of accessibility functions in UK-based VOD services? Currently there are none. Dawn Jones, who runs a great blog called ‘I Heart Subtitles‘, told me that:

As it stands, the regulator ATVOD can only encourage providers to provide subtitles and audio descriptions but there are no [regulatory] requirements to do so as there are with traditional broadcast TV channels.

So whilst the BBC iPlayer managed to get subtitles on 100% of its programming back in 2008, a majority of services still don’t cater enough (if at all) for the needs of those who are hard of hearing. Unlike linear television which is set accessibility standards by Ofcom, VOD services (apart from iPlayer) do not fall under any regulatory jurisdiction. According to a report published in 2013 from ATVOD, only seven service providers out of forty offered access functions to its consumers. 

This statistic is even more surprising when you consider the benefits that accessibility functionality can bring to a service. Subtitles, for example, can act as a form of metadata which is of huge benefit to a VOD service. Diana Sanchez, General Manager of Red Bee Media Spain, puts it like this:

Subtitles are essentially timed text and accurate timed text is extremely useful to power things like search, recommendation or targeted advertising.

She goes on to quote a recent study by Discovery Digital Networks which found that within two weeks of adding closed captions to eight of its channels there was a 13.5% increase in views, not to mention increased search traffic, search rank and overall engagement. Enabling subtitling on all content can make it easier for a search engine to pick out content and produce more accurate search results, something which can potentially bring in more viewers.

#2. Challenges Faced

Why is there such a disconnect? It seems that the main issue is pinning down who in the VOD distribution chain is responsible for actually providing accessibility features. Should content creators be providing scripts of a TV show / movie as standard? Would that then facilitate the inclusion of subtitles by ALL platform operators and service providers?

Thomas Newton, Staff Writer at Recombu, gives the following in defence of the streaming services:

A problem for all streaming companies is that while they have the rights to show content they don’t currently have the capacity to make changes to add or make changes to [closed] captions.

Jones gave me the following example; Apple controls the device you use to watch content which has accessibility support built in, however Apple is not responsible for the content. It is up to the distributor to decide whether to provide subtitles for its content. In the aforementioned ATVOD report however, an MTV spokesperson is quoted as saying that:

It is worth pointing out that in all recent third party platform deals that Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) have undertaken in the UK and across Europe – I have yet to be told by a platform operator that we need to supply subtitle files. There certainly has not been anything mentioned in technical specifications for how we would deliver them.

Responsibility isn’t the only problem facing service providers either; issues such as time, cost and technical difficulty have all been used to justify a lack of captioning on catch-up and VOD services. One problem that often comes up is the need for highly experienced and accurate subtitlers to manually enter text – something that is a time consuming and expensive process. Whilst voice recognition software can be used to ease some of the strain the precision of these systems is currently only billed at around 60-65% which is far too low to be considered a feasible alternative to human input.

Technical issues also play a big role; according to ATVOD “the major UK platform operators have each adopted different file delivery formats for their on-demand platforms” leading to operational difficulties and high costs. The regulatory body states that finding an industry standard “is at the heart of ATVOD’s current access services work” and will be a central part of any future plan.

#3. Solutions

As it currently stands there is no meaningful way for regulatory bodies such as ATVOD or Ofcom to assign responsibility for including subtitles and closed captioning in VOD services. In its 2013 report, ATVOD claims that it “will continue to explore with platform operators and content owners how to overcome such differences”. However, without legislative powers to impose even a minimum level of accessibility it seems that change must come from within the service providers. Jones had this to say:

Absolutely key is to consider accessibility as part of the user experience design of the platform. Accessibility should not be an afterthought. It should be considered ‘business as usual’ when designing the platform and for any updates made to it. It is much easier to include it from the beginning than to build a platform [and] have to alter it later because suddenly accessibility is made a legal requirement.

Technically, an agreed common standard format of subtitle file named EBU-TT is hoped to resolve a lot of complexity issues with inputting subtitling functionality. In regards to producing the subtitles themselves, voice recognition software can be a feasible option with the employment of a ‘respeaker’. These specialists who speak very clearly and include spoken punctuation can increase text accuracy to 98%, significantly reducing the time and labour needed in translating audio into text.

For many operators the problem ultimately comes down to cost. Blinkbox, Tesco’s TVOD service, has said:

Provision of access services is important to Blinkbox. However, there is substantial cost involved with providing these services, and therefore we are working with content providers to try and find a cost-effective solution for all parties in order to deliver such functionality to our customers.

And that’s the crux; until the income generated from including accessibility features outweighs the money spent to support them, or regulatory bodies such as ATVOD are backed up with legislative powers, this is a problem that will continue unresolved.

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