UK moves to measure live captioning

Thursday, 17 October 2013 10:36am

The UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom has announced that it will require television broadcasters to measure the quality of live captioning (known as ‘subtitling’ in the UK).

Live captioning refers to when the captions are created as the program goes to air. These are generally less accurate than captions created ahead of time.

Ofcom’s new approach follows extensive consultation with consumer groups, broadcasters and access suppliers and is part of Ofcom’s effort to comprehensively review the quality of live captioning and identify ways in which it can be improved. The measurement program will start later this year and requires samples to be analysed every six months for a period of two years.

The process will be driven by Ofcom where it will select samples of live captioning from news, entertainment and chat shows. It will be looking at the average speed of the captioning, the latency (the delay between the soundtrack and the captions appearing) and the errors (minor errors, major issues and factual mistakes). Ofcom hopes that the first round of results can be published as part of its access services report due for publication in spring 2014. The University of Roehampton will validate all measurements.

As well as announcing live caption quality measurement, Ofcom’s statement reports on a range of other related issues. The regulator investigated whether a live broadcast should be delayed to allow for enough time to synchronise the captions, as is done in some countries. Broadcasters were generally opposed to this on the grounds of competition from other media, viewer trust and the need for more complex technical solutions. However, Ofcom has kept the discussion going around programs that are not time-sensitive.

Ofcom also focused on late-delivered programs that are often captioned live. It has asked the broadcasters to report on which late-delivered programs they captioned live in the second half of 2013 and will include this information in the report released next year.

Finally, Ofcom reviewed the issue of block vs scrolling captions and noted that block captions were widely preferred by viewers, however not at the expense of more time delay. Ofcom felt that with more captioner training, the delays of providing block captions could be minimised and has asked broadcasters to experiment more (for example on late night programs). Whilst this process is still occurring, Ofcom has asked broadcasters to use block captions where possible and changing scrolling captions to block captions when a program is repeated.

Media Access Australia CEO Alex Varley welcomed this approach, “Once again we see the UK regulator taking a proactive, consumer-friendly approach to live captioning. I particularly like the way that Ofcom always looks at the practical realities of how television is produced, rather than a black-letter law approach to regulations.

“Minimising unnecessary live captions will be a major contribution to caption quality and I urge other regulators, including the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to follow this work carefully and take up its recommendations,” said Varley.

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