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Call on Government to make on-demand TV content accessible

Sensory loss charities urgently call on Government to deliver on promise to make on-demand TV content accessible.

  • The Government were given the power to regulate video on demand (VoD) services and set minimum levels for subtitled, audio described and signed content in 2017.
  • However, four years later and the law still has not been put into action.
  • 60 per cent of those with hearing loss have experienced challenges with the accuracy, availability and timing of subtitles.
  • 42 per cent of blind and partially sighted people disagreed or were unsure if improvements had been made to the provision of audio description, despite Ofcom encouraging providers to make their services accessible.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and RNID are calling on the Government to implement its own promise to introduce quotas for the amount of subtitles, audio description and signed content on on-demand services with users having been waiting over four years for this to be put into action!

The two charities have been campaigning for improvements in access to on-demand TV since 2015, which subsequently led to changes in the law in 2017. These changes gave the government the power to regulate VoD TV services and to set minimum levels for subtitled, audio described (AD) and signed content. However, the Government is yet to put this law into action.

Following two public consultations from the media regulator, Ofcom, the Government now has the final recommendations for how the law should be applied. If implemented, these recommendations would provide for 80% of on-demand content to be provided with the option of subtitles, 10% with audio description and 5% with signing. The recommendations provide exemptions for small providers and according to the regulator provide for ‘proportionate and targeted regulations which bring measurable progress in on-demand accessibility.’

It is now up to the Government to deliver and find the time in Parliament to pass the secondary legislation.

According to the 2020 Ofcom Access Services Report, between January and December, of the providers who responded to Ofcom’s data request, currently 36.2 per cent don’t offer any subtitles, 83.3 per cent don’t offer any AD and 88.6 per cent don’t provide signing.

Furthermore, on on-demand platforms and services that reported having access services, only 58.1 per cent of programming hours had subtitles, 14.2 per cent were audio described and 2.4 per cent were signed.

Ofcom’s report also showed the disparity of subtitle provision across different platforms with one mainstream service providing subtitles on 88.7 per cent of their content on their own website, but then have 0 per cent subtitle availability on some other platforms.

New research has highlighted an urgent need for regulation to be enacted to improve the provision of AD, subtitles and signing on VoD services.

A survey conducted by RNIB on current perceptions of AD provisions found that around 90 per cent of respondents use audio description when watching VoD services. Of those surveyed, only 58 per cent said they’d seen changes to the provisions of AD on these services over the past five years, with one in five (21 per cent) seeing no change in recent years.

In their report, Ofcom states that although no legal requirements are in place for the provision of access service, the regulator encourages broadcasters to make their services progressively more accessible. Despite this, when asked whether they felt improvements had been made to the provision of AD for on demand services in the past five years, 42 per cent of RNIB’s participants disagreed or were unsure whether they’d seen any improvements.

The RNID 2021 Priorities Survey revealed that 60 per cent of users experience challenges with the accuracy, availability and timing of subtitle on TV, and further respondents highlighted that the availability of subtitles should be a priority for government going forward.

Sonali Rai, Broadcaster Relationship and Audio Description Manager at RNIB, said:

“Video on demand services have become increasingly popular over the years. We are extremely concerned that not enough has been done to improve the viewer experience for blind and partially sighted people. Time and time again, people with sight loss have been overlooked when it comes to accessibility of programmes by VOD providers. We urgently need the Government to take action and ensure that blind and partially sighted viewers have access to the same programmes as their sighted peers.”

Reece Finnegan, 25, from London was born with the sight condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP). He has been registered blind since he was a young teenager. He said:

“When audio description is done well, it genuinely transforms my viewing experience. Unfortunately, there are still so many shows that have no such option. As a result of this, I’ve found I have to avoid programmes I would otherwise love to watch simply because I know I won’t be able to understand what’s going on without AD.

“When AD is available, it is generally better than it may have been 10 years ago. However, I don’t think anything has changed dramatically, and the same percentage of programmes seem to have AD as they did a decade ago.

“AD needs to be more than just sticking description over the top of a programme. It needs to be moulded into the programme and enhance the viewing experience of viewers with sight loss by fitting in with the tone of what you’re watching.”

Michelle Hedley, 49 from Northumberland who has severe to profound hearing loss in both ears said:

“Imagine TV was a world where all content was broadcast without sound. And then at a time dictated to you, only a small proportion of them would have sound. You wouldn’t get a say on which programmes carried sound, or when you are ‘allowed’ to watch them. That’s what it feels like currently for those that are deaf or have hearing loss. Your freedom of choice and access is taken away.

“Often conversations in the family, social media or at work turn into what they watched last night. If it was not subtitled it means that I am excluded from the conversation as I can’t contribute which is not a nice feeling. I can lose out on the latest trend or topic due to no access.

”If the law was implemented so that far more on-demand content have subtitles, it would mean that I have the freedom to choose what and when I want to watch just like everyone else. It would mean that I can have more family times where we watch tv together without struggling to find something we all like and has subtitles. The fact that its over four years since the law was changed to allow the Government to regulate for subtitles on on-demand services, but that nothing has happened since then, makes a mockery of the legislation that was put into place. It begs the question how long does it take?”

Robert Geaney, Head of Campaigns and Public affairs at RNID added:

“We want the government to act now to help create an inclusive society where deaf people and those with hearing loss or tinnitus are fully included and have access to the same content as everyone else. Four years is more than long enough to have delivered on the commitments Ministers made in 2017 and we call on the government to act as quickly as possible now Ofcom have made their final recommendations.”

For media enquiries or comment

RNID: Contact our press office

RNIB – Emily Peachey on 07517 996109
or emily.peachey@rnib.org.uk.

For urgent enquiries, please call 07968 482812.

Notes to editors

RNID Research Report – Changing world The impact of Covid-19 on deaf people and those with hearing loss or tinnitus, June 2021.

RNIB Survey results available upon request. Please contact Emily Peachey for details.

RNID (the Royal National Institute for Deaf People) is the national charity making life fully inclusive for deaf people and those with hearing loss or tinnitus. Together, we campaign for an inclusive society. We connect people to practical advice and pioneer new treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.

About RNIB

We are the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

Every six minutes, someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. RNIB is taking a stand against exclusion, inequality and isolation to create a world without barriers where people with sight loss can lead full lives. A different world where society values blind and partially sighted people not for the disabilities they’ve overcome, but for the people they are.

RNIB. See differently.

Call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or visit www.rnib.org.uk