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Government has chance to bring subtitling provision 'into 21st century'

Thursday, October 20th 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Broadcasters may soon be legally obliged to include subtitles, signing and audio description in on-demand programming.

Ofcom regulations require so-called access services to be included in a certain percentage of programmes – but only apply to traditional broadcast TV.

A proposed amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, tabled by shadow digital minister Louise Haigh this week, would establish a new code of practice to cover on-demand services such as iPlayer and ITV Hub.

Campaigners including the deaf charity Action on Hearing Loss have been calling for the government to introduce subtitling and audio description targets since June 2015.

Paul Breckell, the charity’s chief executive, told Cable.co.uk: "Unlike traditional TV, there is currently no requirement for TV providers to include access services in their on-demand content.

“As a result, many services remain inaccessible to people with sensory loss, with over three-quarters of TV on demand providers still not offering subtitles, despite a year-on-year growth in audience figures.”

Research by the BBC found that two million programmes are watched with subtitles every day on the iPlayer – around 20% of everything watched on the service.

The BBC is also trialling subtitles for live channels accessed through the iPlayer.

BT has committed to improving its subtitling provision and last year Sky said its most popular on-demand content would have subtitles by summer 2016.

It has since been announced that subtitles would be launched on the Sky-owned Now TV by the end of the year, but Mr Breckell said the introduction of government targets is vital.

'Updating the law'

“We have been calling for legislation in this area through our Subtitle it! campaign for some time and so we warmly welcome the amendment to the Digital Economy Bill,” he said.

“This is a great opportunity to bring legislation that still refers to Teletext, which was switched off in 2009, but makes no mention of Video on Demand, into the 21st century.”

Ms Haigh’s tabling of an amendment is the latest step by Action on Hearing Loss in its bid to include subtitling provisions in the Digital Economy Bill.

Labour MP Lilian Greenwood and Conservative MP Neil Carmichael spoke in support of a Subtitle it! amendment at an earlier stage of the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Ms Greenwood previously submitted a Private Members Bill in support of the campaign, saying there was a “compelling case for updating the law”.

The Digital Economy Bill includes a new Universal Service Obligation that will give UK residents the legal right to 10Mbps broadband, more powers for Ofcom to collect broadband speed data and a new Electronic Communications Code, which will make it easier for providers to build broadband infrastructure.

It is currently being scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee before MPs have the chance to debate it the Bill, complete with amendments, and vote on whether it should be passed.

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