New subtitling technology for TV broadcast and the cinema

Last week was a bit of subtitles technology themed week for me for two reasons. First I had the opportunity to visit the London offices of Red Bee Media who showed me their current workflows for providing access to broadcast TV for the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as giving me the opportunity to learn about the new bespoke software that they have been working on and are looking at rolling out soon. It is called Subito (which translates as ‘immediately’ in Italian). The hope is that this will result in a signficant improvement in the output of live subtitles which is currently nearly always produced by the process of respeaking (See #Subtitlefail TV). Most of the complaints people have in the UK around TV subtitling is when live subtitles are used. There are times when the process of live subtitling is not ideal because it is a process that can have an inconsistency in accuracy. It is hoped that this new software will result in much better consistency and accuracy of live subtitles.

Subito allows the subtitler with far more options to prepare text which may come from a number of different sources to use in addition to respeaking the audio output. These sources might be a script or an autocue, or if they themselves type or respeak it and the audio video content is repeated later on (this is common on 24 hour news channels).This text can be accessed to use later on rather than the subtitler having to respeak the same content over again. The text can also be edited if and when required. At the moment the existing software does allow some prepared text content to be included with respeaking content but with very limited options including a lack of control and options for the subtitler to determine the speed of how that prepared text is seen by the viewer at home – it might appear too fast to be read for example as blocks rather than scrolling that you see with most live subtitles. The new software gives the subtitler much more control and flexibility to incorporate prepared subtitles. There are also improvements behind the speech technology used for computers to convert a subtitlers speech into text with accuracy and speed.(Speech technology was never designed with live subtitling in mind. The technology is being used in ways few would’ve thought of when it was first introduced into products the late 80s/1990s.) So why should this new software have a significant impact on live subtitling output? Well it is currently still being trialled. But the hope is that the effect should be twofold:

(1) The skill of respeaking which is actually very difficult should become a little easier thanks to the improvements in speech recognition technology and further bespoke changes that have been made to the back-end to compliment it use for the purpose of creating broadcast subtitles.
(2) The greater number of options and flexibility a subtitler will have to get the subtitles out during live programmes to the viewer with speed and accuracy should see an improvement in the output.

The software has been designed with the end-user – the subtitler in mind. This is actually key for me – who better to know what tools they need to deliver a better output. There has also been thought put in to work out how to automate some of the options available to subtilers such as automatically cueing the text to the screen/viewer once it has been associated to the video content (for repeated segments on 24 hour live channels for example). The benefit is to free up a subtitler to work on something else that they can see is coming up on the live channel that they are subtitling. It should in theory make job satisfaction higher and hopefully slightly less monotonous. As a viewer I look forward to its roll out and the impact on the output of live subtitling on some of the UK TV channels.

As a side note – last month I met with the manager of STAGETEXT who kindly showed me the software their subtitlers use and the process they go through to provide subtitled theatre. They too have gone down the bespoke software route to ensure that subtitlers or captioners have as much control as possible on the output – both the content and the speed. An awful lot of prep work is done to aid this. In the same way that TV broadcast subtitlers have to react quickly to any changes to audio on live broadcasts, the challenges are the same if an actor or actress goes off script or there are time delays / or increases and the software needs to allow for quick reactions. Those specific details are issues faced by both companies and it is interesting that bespoke software is the solution both companies have chosen.

I was also lucky enough to take part in a cinema subtitling technology demo in London at the weekend. It was organised by the CEA. They have asked for us not to publicise too much information about what we used and that the CEA would publish public information about the trials results soon. I want to respect that request so the details of the devices we used are deliberately vague in this blog post. I was part of a screening which tested two types of personal devices that allow the individual to see subtitles without any being displayed on the cinema screen. I was allocated one of them. I took part in the focus group afterwards during which the feedback was very mixed for both pieces of technology. For those that don’t know the CEA has already done a lot of work in getting open subtitles screenings in cinemas across the UK which I am grateful for. We are one of the few countries to do this. I am of the opinion that the best technological solution is open subtitles. The UK cinema industry currently does not use any other form of technology to provide subtitles (to my knowledge). There were several different views expressed by different people at the focus group such. I hope that the CEA publish a summary of the feedback soon so it can be discussed in a more open way. As a reminder, you can find listings for subtitled cinema (as well as audio described screenings for those with visual impairments) in the UK at Your Local Cinema. If a subtitled screening is not taking place near you and you own a smart phone then why not try these options.