Caption reports hide great access story

Friday, 22 August 2014 12:53pm

Why is it that our communications regulator seems satisfied to hide great achievements in access by our free-to-air television stations? Commentary by Alex Varley.

Developments that benefit viewers, stations, advertisers and content providers should be celebrated and publicised. Instead the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) puts out reports that hide innovation and the power of the market to deliver more under a spirit of healthy competition.

What am I ranting about? Yesterday ACMA released its long awaited compliance report on captioning levels for the free-to-air stations in Australia (more than a year after the fact). It already sounds dull and the report is in pretty dry legalistic prose, although it does manage to acknowledge that the main channels (ABC, SBS, Seven, Nine, Ten and their regional variants) managed to overall exceed the required quotas.

First piece of good news: Caption quotas and reporting requirements deliver greater levels of access for caption viewers. This echoes the experience of the UK where transparent, timely reporting shows consistently higher levels of access achieved.

Then buried in the report is a brief statement saying that the multichannels basically captioned all the repeats that they were required to caption, with a small number of exceptions, which are duly listed in a table. So the average reader would look at this and conclude that the multichannels are required to caption all repeated captioned programs from the main channel (which they are) and that’s all they did.

Second piece of good news: Many of the multichannels actually captioned more than the bare minimum required under the regulations. As this table compiled from a sample week in April this year shows, in some cases the levels of captions rival those on popular pay channels and certainly provide rich pickings for viewers.

Table 1: Captioning on multichannels

Channel ABC24 ABC2 ABC3 SBS2 7Two 7Mate Go! Gem One Eleven
Captioning 6am - midnight 96% 100% 100% 14% 35% 41% 33% 57% 23% 24%
Captioning midnight – 6 am 47% 90% NA 17% 22% 21% 13% 40% 12% 24%
Total captioning over 24 hours 83% 84% NA 15% 32% 36% 28% 53% 20% 24%


The ABC is the standout with near 100% across ABC2, ABC3 and News24 and you might say as a public broadcaster this is part of their duty to provide for all Australians. I am not too worried about why and more interested that they have.

Their commercial rivals are not tardy either. The supposed financial, profit-chasing hard heads in charge of channels like 7Mate and Eleven, to pick on a couple, managed to deliver non-repeated programs with captions. That’s right – somebody made a decision to caption these programs, even though they were not legally obliged to do so. This is the kind of behaviour that suggests that a good competitive market is in operation and it should be applauded and highlighted, not hidden from view.

Are we ashamed of access and doing better? Isn’t it a social good that allows more people to watch whatever content they want to see, especially as captions are used not only by people with hearing loss, but those learning English and in situations where you can’t hear the sound (footy in noisy pubs springs to mind). I am sure the advertisers that support these commercial channels want as many people as possible to be viewing these captioned programs. A lot of the advertisers caption their commercials too.

Coming up in October is the annual Captioning Awards hosted by Deafness Forum. I run the judging panel for these awards and this kind of positive approach was acknowledged last year when two of the awards went to multichannels that captioned more than they had to. It seems to me there is room for some more entries in this area.

I think a fundamental issue here is an attitudinal approach from a regulator. The UK regulator Ofcom, and the US regulator the Federal Communications Commission, seem to have an approach that is more about encouragement and pushing boundaries. They don’t necessarily demand bigger quotas or more regulation, but nudge and prod in a positive direction. They understand that it is natural human behaviour to want to outdo your rivals, and encouragement and publicity form part of that process. More importantly, it works.

I see what is happening with our multichannels not as an opportunity to tick a few regulatory boxes, but an opportunity for some friendly market competition that benefits about 15% of the population that need captions to enjoy the content. How can that be a bad thing? I am not asking for more rules, I am just suggesting that the full story is told. It’s a powerful story of how commercial interests are making access better for television viewers.

Alex Varley is the CEO of Media Access Australia. He didn’t train as a lawyer but does think that sometimes psychology and positive publicity can be as powerful as regulations in achieving access goals.

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