CSI User Experience Conference 2012 Part 1 – Subtitling & Video On Demand Services

CSI User Experience Conference 2012: TV Accessibility

CSI User Experience Conference 2012: TV Accessibility

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the CSI User Experience Conference 2012 in London during which many panel discussions and presentations were given on a wide range of issues relating to access to broadcast. Panelists and speakers were from broadcasters, companies providing access services, regulators, and representatives from disability and advocacy groups. You can find details of all the panelists and speakers and download a full transcript of the days events here.  In this first post about the conference I will focus on some of the points and issues raised that relate specifically to subtitling and non linear, video on demand broadcast. Any regulators discussed here refer to those based in the UK. 

Non linear television comprises about 2 or 3% of total TV viewing in the UK and is regulated in the UK by ATVOD – The Authority for Television On Demand (with the exception of BBC iplayer which is regulated by Ofcom). Part of the regulatory duties is to encourage service providers to ensure they make their services progressively more available to people with disability relating to sight and hearing. However as of this date of writing, unlike the broadcast regualator Ofcom, ATVOD don’t have any legal powers to compel service providers to do this. Why the heck not? Interestingly throughout this conference broadcasters and access service providers expressed a desire to see access provided regardless of legal requirements or further regulation. Video on demand and other non linear TV services are in their infancy compared to linear TV and this is one of several reasons as why little video on demand content is subtitled. ATVOD are working with stakeholders to identify the barriers to provision. Here is what Pete Johnson, Chief Executive of ATVOD said on this subject:

Now obviously some of those barriers are simple commercial ones did costs money, its a nascent industry, there are lots of different outlets which will require different solutions, and so some of that will emerge over time. But its also clear that there are some technical barriers as well, for example around the lack of standardisation of subtitling files that are required by different platforms in order to make subtitles appear. One of the things we have done is brought together a working party which includes the DTG, so joined up thinking here, representatives of the various charities and service providers to try to see if we can get some standardisation so that a content provider who is providing a programme asset to a range of different platforms and outlets can provide one asset – one subtitle file for example, and know that that can be played out across the different platforms. At the moment a content provider might have to write a whole range of different subtitling files in order to make that play out across the different platforms. We’re also encouraging the platforms themselves, especially the set-top box operators to make sure that their next generation box can handle subtitling and audio description, and signing in a manner that some of the current generation don’t.

One of the other interesting points raised, is from a regulatory point of view even if there was stronger UK legislation to provide access services on video on demand content, some of the largest video on demand services accessed in the UK, such as iTunes and Netflix – these are not within UK jurisdiction. They are within Luxembourg’s jurisdiction. Kevin Carey, Chair of Technical Committee, World Blind Union and chair of the UK’s RNIB in response to this point made an excellent suggestion as to what needs to change to get around this issue:

If you made it statutory and its perfectly possible to too do this, even if Amazon is based in Luxembourg you still make a UK payment with a UK based credit card. If you legislated that it was the person who collected the payment responsibility for the accessibility, regulatory flight on this issue would not be possible. So the key to this in the long run is who collects the money. That will take care of the services part of it.

ATVOD has published the results of its 2012 survey of the levels of provision of signing, subtitling audio description on regulated VOD services. The aim is to reveal the level of provision and allows people to take a view on whether this level of provision is sufficient, if the rate of improvement is sufficient year on year and also to identify those who are making progress and those who are not. With regards to subtitling the news is positive. In 2011 just 4 regulated services told ATVOD they were providing programmes with subtitling, but this year that has increased to 12. Signing has also increased from 0 in 2011, to, 2 service providers saying that they now provide some signed programming. However the progress with audio description services remains static between 2011-2012 with 2 service providers saying they provided some audio described programmes. What is really depressing however is the fact that so few services providers chose to respond to the survey in the first place. This is something Chief Executive Pete Johnson is concerned about. He said:

We’re also considering whether to make responses to future surveys. On provision compulsory. We have the power to issue a demand for information under The Communication Act. One of the things I found disappointing this year was although we have 81 service providers providing 200 services, the overwhelming majority over 80% didn’t respond which is disappointing and I think we highlight in our report those who we asked who didn’t respond. I wonder can we perhaps ask why they didn’t respond. We also want to consider with stakeholders whether there are opportunities to highlight best practice and I am very pleased to be able to put those slides up to say that the likes of 4 On Demand (4OD) and Channel 5 and ITV and STV are actually making process in this area I hope that it will encourage those that weren’t able to feature on those slides to make themselves appear next year.

The complete ATVOD survey of Provision of Video on Demand Access Services- 2012 Report can be found here.