United Kingdom

Ofcom

Ofcom is the UK media and communications regulator—similar to the Australian Communications and Media Authority in Australia. 

Ofcom has the power to create minimum access requirements for television, and the power to enforce those targets, including using sanctions (financial penalties) if there are serious breaches to obligations.

Ofcom operates its requirements by including them in broadcasting licences. Thus, a breach of an obligation to provide access services would be a breach of licence conditions—which would could put the broadcaster’s whole business in jeopardy.

Television access requirements

A number of important contrasts between the UK and Australian approaches to television access regulation include:

§  The Communications Act 2003 requires Ofcom to draw up, review and revise the television access requirements on a regular basis

§  The Australian codes deal only with captioning, whereas the UK Code on Television Access Services covers not only closed captioning, but also audio description and signing, thus avoiding total discrimination against those people who rely on audio description or signing to access television

§  The minimum statutory target for audio description (AD) in the UK is 10% of programming (although Ofcom had previously rejected raising the statutory target to 20%, several broadcasters have set themselves a voluntary target of 20%—the British Government has welcomed this, and noted that if actual levels of AD fall significantly below 20%, then it will consider imposing statutory targets of 20% in the future)

§  In accordance with Section 310(3) of the Communications Act 2003, the Code on Electronic Programme Guides obliges UK providers to make electronic programme guides (EPGs) accessible to people with vision and hearing impairments

The Communications Act 2003 required Ofcom to develop a Code on Television Access Services in conjunction with representatives of the sensory impaired community. The code stipulates the minimum captioning (called ‘subtitling’ in the UK), signing and audio description levels required of broadcasters as they mature:

Anniversary of relevant date Subtitling

 

Signing

 

Audio description

First

10%

1%

2%

Second

10%

1%

4%

Third

35%

2%

6%

Fourth

35%

2%

8%

Fifth

60%

3%

10%

Sixth

60%

3%

10%

Seventh

70%

4%

10%

Eighth

70%

4%

10%

Ninth

70%

4%

10%

Tenth

70%

4%

10%

 

Once Ofcom has detailed what particular access requirements it wishes to impose on broadcasters (Code on Television Access Services, § 3.1.3), it will write those requirements into the licences which it issues to broadcasters. The following underlie the Code, and facilitate provision of television access services:

  1. Broadcasters are only required to expend up to one per cent of UK-derived qualifying revenue on providing access services
  2. Broadcasters are only required to provide access services when they have 0.05% of total audience share
  3. The provision to maximise the provision of access services of channels in common ownership, whether assessment is conducted by averages or individually

When Ofcom becomes aware of a breach (ie where a broadcaster is found to have not met minimum access requirements), Ofcom will follow enforcement procedures, which may result in a statutory sanction is imposed in serious cases.  Most often, where a broadcaster has not met its minimum requirements, the deficit will be simply added to the next year’s minimum requirement.

Caption Quality

Ofcom's Code on Television Access Services contains recommendations for best practice in captioning, including the following:

  • Pre-prepared block captions are better for viewers than scrolling captions, and should be used for pre-recorded programs.
  • The word speed for captions on pre-recorded programs should not exceed 160-180 words per minute.
  • The target for time lag for live captions should be a maximum of 3 seconds.

In May 2013, Ofcom released a consultation paper asking for suggestions from viewers, broadcasters and other interested parties to improve the quality of live captioning. Its decisions were announced in a statement, 'Measuring the quality of subtitling', in October 2013. Ofcom is requiring broadcasters to report every six months for the next two years on the quality of live captioning on several programs in different genres which Ofcom will choose. The results will then be independently validated.When the process is complete, Ofcom will decide whether to introduce further mandatory targets for live caption quality. 

Online media

Ofcom has very limited powers to regulate access to online media. In its ‘Access and Inclusion Statement’ (2009, p 30), Ofcom notes that it has no ‘specific powers to encourage broadband take-up or promote media literacy’. Furthermore, although Ofcom has a requirement to secure the availability of a ‘wide range of electronic communications services’, broadband has not been designated in legislation as a universal service (‘Access and Inclusion Statement’, 2009, p 38).  Ofcom, therefore, has no power to enforce access to broadband.

Ofcom does, however, promote the W3C Accessibility Guidelines (‘Advice for disabled people: Choosing a telephone, mobile, or internet service’, 2009).

However, the UK leads the world in providing captioning and audio description access to mainstream media content. It has the most advanced provider in terms of transferring that access to downloadable and streaming versions in the BBC. However, with other channels, there is no access on download content, reflecting the position of other countries, where download access is mixed.

The most developed download/streaming player is the BBC iPlayer. This provides caption access to most of its programs and the goal of the BBC is to provide the same level of access as its broadcast content. 

The content is the last 7 days of BBC television and radio programs. It is understood that current caption provision levels are approaching 80% of content, and audio description was added in 2009. Unfortunately the video content on iPlayer is only available in the UK.

 


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