UK VOD industry has two years to deliver captions or face regulation

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014 16:15pm

The video on demand (VOD) industry in the United Kingdom has two years to prove that it can deliver reasonable access for deaf people or it will face the government introducing mandatory regulation. This was one of the key discussions at The Future of Subtitling Conference held in London on 10 November 2014.

Silhouette of a man pointing remote control towards multiple screens

Media Access Australia CEO Alex Varley was on the VOD panel and he encouraged the deaf organisations to negotiate with the VOD industry to achieve a good outcome. “The room was full of TV executives who do not want to have their options controlled by regulation and so would be willing to negotiate a sensible outcome,” said Varley. His approach was backed by the CEO of the Authority for Television on Demand Limited (ATVOD), Peter Johnson, who currently has responsibility for regulating VOD services in the UK.

Under the UK regulatory arrangement, ATVOD does not have any power to directly impose captioning quotas, but “encourages” provision of access. Johnson acknowledged that commercial competition would be a major factor in delivering more access, especially if the VOD providers could see revenue directly flowing from this.

In the panel discussion around what could constitute reasonable progress, Varley mentioned the Australian example of Foxtel Movies on Demand where around 80% of the movies were captioned. He said that this showed that Foxtel had thought about what was needed to entice customers to buy the product and who were they competing with for that revenue. In Foxtel’s case it was a direct competitor to DVDs and they need to at least match the levels of captioning on DVDs. This approach was recently acknowledged with an Australian captioning award.

An audience member added to the discussion around what is a reasonable service offering, commenting that a caption-user was still expected to pay full price for a subscription service even when not all of the product is captioned. It was suggested that perhaps the caption user should pay a portion of the fee directly related to how much captioning was provided.

Varley said that this was a widely raised issue and that he felt that reducing the price of a captioned subscription was not the answer. “If you accept, say, paying half-price because only 50% is captioned, all you are doing is entrenching a view that captions are special or different and you remove any incentives to make the product more accessible. The real answer is that there should be 100% captioning and that a caption user should pay the same as everybody else.”

In the past, technical issues have been cited as reasons for not including captioning on VOD services, particularly with a range of online video players in the market.  ATVOD’s Johnson categorically stated that “there were no technical barriers to providing access”.

The UK is already experiencing some improvements in VOD access with the major television broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5) providing captioning on their catch-up TV services and international VOD platform, Netflix, also providing captioned content. Main Netflix rival Amazon Prime (formerly Lovefilm) is expected to provide captions by the end of the year.  

The Future of Subtitling Conference was hosted by Action on Hearing Loss in partnership with Sense and UK Council on Deafness.

For more information, see our Video on demand page.

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