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TV subtitles are improving – but speed makes some unreadable

Thursday, May 21st 2015 by Dean Reilly

The quality of TV subtitling is continuing to improve, but more needs to be done to control speed and readability, new research has found.

Ofcom looked at the accuracy of subtitling, the latency of subtitles (the delay between the spoken word and the subtitle appearing on screen) and average subtitle speeds.

The telecoms regulator's third report measuring live subtitling quality said broadcasters are making wider use of block subtitles rather than scrolling ones, after feedback showed they were easier to read.

It also found that there were “relatively high” levels of accuracy for news and entertainment programming, with respective accuracy rates of 98.96% and 98.76%.

Fewer sampled programmes were found to have an unacceptable quality of subtitling, with 23.1% failing to reach minimum standards.

Ofcom also found there was a “modest but useful” reduction in the number of subtitle outages caused by technical problems faced by broadcasters.

It was also reported that a greater percentage of subtitling was deemed to be excellent when compared to the previous report. Programmes deemed to have subtitles that performed at 99% or higher accuracy rose from from 23.6% in November to 24.4% in the May release.

Not fast enough

However, speed proved to be a continuing problem for users of subtitles on UKTV channels including Dave, Gold and Watch.

Ofcom reported that, while the latency of subtitles – the period of time in between words being spoken and their respective subtitle appearing on screen – has shortened, it is still not fast enough.

The latest latency figures of 5.1 seconds are 0.6 seconds faster than the April 2014 results and 0.8 seconds faster than those published in November last year.

Yet this 5.1 second delay is still slower than the latency target of three seconds Ofcom guidance currently suggests.

The report also found that, in some cases, improvements in latency came at the expense of subtitles being too rapid to read and fully understand.

In one instance, it was found that in a ten minute sample of a chat show broadcast by Sky, subtitles exceeded the recommended speed of 200 words per minute 219 times.

'Biggest complaint'

Rob Burley, head of public affairs and campaigns at Action on Hearing Loss, said subtitling is vital for people with hearing loss to be able to access TV.

"We welcome the continuing improvements identified by Ofcom and congratulate the broadcasters on this progress," he said.

"Our own research shows that the lag between speech and the subtitles appearing is the biggest complaint for people with hearing loss, so we urge broadcasters to act on Ofcom’s recommendation that they trial a short delay in broadcasts to enable the subtitles to be synchronised more effectively with the speech."

Cable.co.uk previously reported that earlier Ofcom research found delays of up to 21 seconds on some subtitled programmes.

Ofcom originally started the two-year study in 2013 to learn more about the quality of live subtitling on British TV. It aimed to identify any areas that needed improvement, and to encourage broadcasters to act upon the findings.

The first two reports were published by Ofcom in April and November 2014 respectively.

The fourth and final Ofcom report on the quality of subtitles on British TV is scheduled for Autumn 2015.

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