When are bad captions permitted on television?

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Tuesday, 17 September 2013 11:43am

When a viewer complains about inadequate TV captioning Australia’s media regulator steps in to determine if the breach is excusable. We look at the regulations to see what the TV networks can get away with.

Caption quality is one of the most talked about issues among caption users. There have been advances in dealing with quality in recent years, including the incorporation of quality standards into Australian regulations with the passing of the new captioning rules and regulations in 2012. In May 2013 a new quality standard was enacted by the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) which looks at how caption quality can be measured, using the criteria of readability, accuracy and comprehensibility.

So under the new rules is bad captioning ever excusable?

In the development of the captioning regulations there was a lot of consultation by the ACMA with viewers, television networks and caption suppliers. In these discussions there were some situations outlined that could cause captions to be missing or scrambled.  The ACMA wanted to make it very clear that it would consider any allowed breaches of the requirement to show captions that are of an adequate quality would be a rare event and one requiring significant investigation and proof. 

In the ACMA’s language, bad captions are never “permitted” but can be “disregarded”. The examples given by the ACMA are around significant technical or engineering difficulties and ones that would not have been foreseen. So a major unexpected failure of equipment would appear to be a valid reason for a lack of captions, but not undertaking regular maintenance leading to a failure would be less likely to be excused. 

The ACMA makes it clear that repeated errors and a lack of control systems to detect captioning problems would also weigh against disregarding a captioning breach. 

“These approaches are generally sensible and practical,” said our CEO, Alex Varley.  “A broadcaster still has to go through a major investigative process and the onus appears to be on them to really show that it was something beyond their control and they did everything they could to deal with the issue quickly.”

This is reflected in investigations into breaches by Nine and Seven released in August. In both cases, technical difficulties were found to be the cause and the breach was dismissed.

“A much bigger concern for viewers is the amount of unnecessary live captions that are much harder to follow and the source of most of the complaints and feedback that we receive,” said Varley.

For more information on television captioning regulations see our explanation of the amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act [DOC 303 KB].

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