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Charities slam government's decision not to set on-demand subtitles targets

Friday, April 8th 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Deaf and blind charities have hit out at the government’s decision not to set subtitling and audio description targets for on-demand TV content.

Campaigners want the rules that cover traditional broadcast TV extended to on-demand services such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

But digital minister Ed Vaizey this week said progress was being made – and that new legislation could have a “detrimental impact” on access services.

The Subtitle It! campaign, launched by deaf charity Action on Hearing Loss in June 2015, called for an end to what it called the digital exclusion of those reliant on subtitles.

It was backed by Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, who submitted a Private Member's Bill to the House of Commons, as well as other charities including RNIB, Sense and the National Deaf Children’s Society.

In a letter to Action on Hearing Loss, Mr Vaizey said the government had committed in 2013 to “increase the levels of subtitles and audio description for on-demand content.

He said progress was being made and “looks to continue with the development of innovative solutions”.

“The introduction of legislation and the prescription of targets could have a detrimental impact on what the sector has shown it is able to achieve on a voluntary basis.”

Mr Vaizey also said he would contact broadcasters, content providers and platform operators in spring 2017 to request an update.

Action on Hearing Loss CEO Paul Breckell said he was disappointed the government wasn’t taking decisive action.

'Makes no sense'

“We have warmly welcomed some exciting improvements to the provision of subtitles that have been promised by some broadcasters and platform operators but the overall picture of current provision is bleak,” he said.

“76% of the UK’s on-demand services [are] still inaccessible to people with hearing loss – just a 4% improvement from the previous year.”

Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People), said the charity was “extremely disappointed”.

“The government said in 2013 that it would consider legislating in 2016 if on-demand TV had not become significantly more accessible,” she said.

“Last December industry regulator ATVOD’s report clearly showed the ‘voluntary’ approach had failed blind viewers.

“It makes no sense for the government to decide that regulation is not needed. We strongly urge Mr Vaizey to think again.”

Joff McGill, head of information, advice and research at deafblind charity Sense, said accessible content can be found on an increasing range of devices, but the overall picture of provision is disappointing.

“Yes, it is a complex picture, with new technologies emerging, a lack of standardisation, and a number of organisations involved in ensuring subtitles and other access services are delivered. But a common framework, set out by government, would help.”

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