Rubbish subtitles: an update

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself unexpectedly in the Daily Mail, the Metro, Digital Spy and the Sun. Sadly, it wasn’t due to scandal or celebrity mayhem. Instead, with my NDCS hat on, I had put my name to a quote lambasting ITV for their rubbish live subtitles for Dancing on Ice. Some of the worse examples included Philip Schofield suggesting the contestants would be “toasted to their limits.” Live subtitles are never perfect. These subtitles were appalling though and suggested a real lack of thought and prep by the production team. If live subtitles of reasonable quality can be done on the X Factor, it can be done on Dancing on Ice.

The only thing worse that rubbish live subtitles on live programmes are rubbish live subtitles on pre-recorded programmes. Which brings me to the Young Apprentice over on the BBC.

Last November, the BBC found itself on the deaf naughty step by showing the final of the Young Apprentice with live subtitles. Which would have been fine except it wasn’t a live programme, it was evidently filmed several months before. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog set out the case against the BBC.

I made a formal complaint to the BBC. I had a cursory reply back then referring to “technical problems”. I politely replied asking what exactly these technical problems were. Three months later, they finally got round to coming up with another excuse. The gist of their reply:

“The technical problems to which we refer is that many programmes are only completed close to transmission or have to be re-edited just before broadcast for countless possible reasons thus the reality is that sometimes there just isn’t time for our subtitlers to step in between when a programme has been finished or edited and the time of broadcast… We genuinely do our utmost to have full subtitles on absolutely all programmes because we are committed to providing a great service to all audiences and it is as disappointing for us as it is to you when we’re not able to for reasons beyond our direct control.”

On reading this, my face was full of such scorn as to put Margaret’s raised eyebrows and Nick’s pursed lips to shame. I wouldn’t mind a late reply, if it bothered to address my concerns properly.

Namely, how exactly is this outside of their direct control? Who commissions these programmes and sets out expectations for what the end product will look like? The BBC surely don’t accept any old rubbish. So why do they accept programmes that arrive too late for subtitles to be added?

And secondly, how exactly is completing programmes close to transmission and re-editing them at last minute a “technical problem.” It isn’t a technical problem. It’s poor planning. It’s some guy in the production team deciding not to leave enough time in the schedule to allow subtitles be ready in time. It’s some guy deciding that access for deaf people is a lesser priority.

I’ve sent my complaint straight back to the BBC and asked them to look again. With a new series of the Apprentice starting soon, I’m determined to toast the BBC complaints team to their limits until they deal with this properly.


My “Campaigning for Deaf Children” Christmas wish list

As a campaigner, what would I like Santa Claus to give deaf children for Christmas?

1) Greater focus on making sure deaf children start primary school on a level playing field with other children. The newborn screening programme is now over 5 years in and every child born deaf should be being diagnosed within the first few weeks of life. Late diagnosis was a major barrier, now removed. And deafness isn’t a learning disability. Yet government figures suggest little change in the early years attainment gap. So what’s going on? And what needs to change to close this gap? In my view, there’s lots of theories and lots of best practice suggestions but no concrete answers or explanation of why the gap isn’t closing. I’d like Santa to bring us closer to some solutions.

2) Local authorities stop picking on deaf children’s services for cuts. It’s a false economy; denying deaf children support the help they need now means a generation of deaf adults failing to achieve their potential and make a full contribution. It also means parents of deaf children will push for statements for special educational needs, and the legal entitlements this brings. NDCS’s Save Services for Deaf Children campaign has information on campaigning to protect services. There’s lots of ways councils can make savings without impacting on services: such as working with neighbouring council’s to share and pool resources. I’d like Santa to knock heads together in council offices. Or at least make sure they get no presents this year.

3) And something for the stocking. The BBC, ITV and other programme makers stop using live subtitles for pre-recorded programmes. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog explains the fury caused when the final of the Young Apprentice had subtitles out of sync with what was being said. “Technical problems” are often cited. More likely, the programme editors were too busy faffing about with last minute changes that there wasn’t enough time to prepare subtitles. This denial of access is just not on. I’d like Santa to say to whoever is responsible for these kind of “technical problems”: you’re fired.

It’s a pretty modest list of requests, I think. What else do you think we should ask Santa for?

Otherwise, all that remains is to wish everyone who reads my blog a very happy Christmas and prosperous 2012. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the 2011 blogs and see you next year.

Celebrity DJ calls subtitled films at cinema “daft”

Today gave me a whopping reminder of the power of Twitter in campaigns when “celebrity” DJ, Sara Cox managed to unite the deaf community in anger at some fairly idiotic tweets last night.

It’s a hard life being Sara. She’s goes to the cinema on a date and then, shock horror of horrors, finds the film is showing with SUBTITLES! Frankly, I would tweeted in amazement that she managed to chance upon a film that was accessible to deaf people. Instead, she describes this on Twitter as “daft”. A few people point out that actually the subtitles are there to help deaf people access films. She dismisses them with what I can only describe as a naughty Northern swear word. A huge outcry later, still going the last time I looked on Twitter, said offensive tweets were deleted and an apology issued. Apparently, she thought the subtitles were for foreigners. Daft, indeed (here’s a screengrab of her nonsense – courtesy of @Deaf on Twitter) and the story has been picked up in a couple of news outlets including the Telegraph.

Is this enough? She’s said she’s mortified at the offence caused, should we tweeters get some perspective and all move onto something else? Maybe. But I’m still pretty annoyed and disappointed by the whole thing.

Subtitled films are few and far inbetween. Deaf people can’t just turn up to watch a subtitled film. We have to plan our social lives around the few showings around and then sit with our fingers crossed through some rubbish adverts in the hope that the man in the projector box doesn’t screw up the subtitles. Deaf journalist, Charlie Swinbourne, hit the nail on the head in his article for the Guardian a while back. Deaf children and grown ups need more access, not less.

As has been powerfully pointed out by fellow deaf tweeters, thanks to an ill-informed tweet, a celebrity, with lots of followers who seem rather keen and willing to defend her views, has now helped make it legitimate and OK to complain about access for deaf people and made it harder for deaf campaigners to persuade cinema to show more subtitled films. A lot of valuable work, potentially undone. Very frustrating indeed.

I’m sure Sara is genuine in her apology. But the damage has been done and there are no naughty Northern swear words that can take it back.

Memo to the BBC: your promotional DVDs…

If you are going to send me – a deaf person working in a deaf organisation in a role that involves campaigning for the rights of deaf children and young people – a marketing DVD about “oustanding children’s content” from CBeebies and CBBC, along with a covering letter that states BBC has a responsibility to produce content “in a language and style our young audiences will understand”, you may want to consider putting subtitles on the DVD.

Just a thought.

UPDATE (8/10/10): Following this blog, the BBC sent me a very nice email apologising and explaining that the DVD was a limited print run of DVDs for key stakeholders, and that all programmes shown were subtitled when shown on TV (as is all BBC content on their main channels) and on commercially available DVDs. I’ve also been promised another DVD with subtitled content. It’s much appreciated that the BBC have taken the time to respond in this way.

ITV confirm that X Factor subtitles need to be better

Image courtesy of ITV

I blogged a while ago about rubbish subtitles on the X Factor. Well, after a series of stroppy emails and a threat to involve the Ofcom regulator, I got an email from ITV Viewer Services confirming what was pretty obvious to anyone who had been watching the audition shows of the X Factor from the start: that the subtitles were terrible and that, having finally watched the programme, they “would like the subtitling quality to be of a much higher standard”. Amen.

So why were the subtitles so rubbish? Even though the audition shows are filmed months in advance, the production team don’t finish editing the programmes until the very last minute. This means that the subtitling company don’t see the programme until the day of broadcast and the subtitles are made as if it was a live programme. I thought it was a rubbish reason. Surely, if ITV is serious about ensuring that deaf children and young people can access the X Factor along with other children, they would amend the production schedules so that more time can be factored in (or even… “x” factored in) to make the subtitles? Not the most unreasonable adjustment in the world, no?

After a bit of chasing, ITV finally seem to have seen the light and raised the issue with the production team to come up with a solution. The production team will send through a near-final edit of the programme the day before and subtitles will be prepared for this version. They also agreed that subtitles for repeats will be “perfect”.

I watched Saturday’s version and the subtitles were considerably better than before. Aside from a 5 minute bit where the subtitles completely disappeared, I was able to enjoy it as much as my hearing friends. Though their initial emails were slightly dismissive at first, hats off to ITV for for finally taking action to sort this. Here’s hoping the subtitles continue to be better for the next few shows.

Of course, we still have the live shows coming up. I’ve also emailed ITV again to ask them to take steps to make sure the production team and the subtitling people talk to each other to make sure the subtitles are as good as they can be. Fingers crossed.

My top 3 lessons from this?

1) Don’t be afraid to complain and make a fuss.
2) If the initial reply is rubbish, say so and say why.
3) Find out how to escalate the complaint and make it clear you will do so if you’re not happy with the replies.

Finally, if you come across any programmes with rubbish subtitles, the NDCS website explains how you can complain about it.

X Factor: looking for pig talent

This could be interesting, I thought, as I sat down for my Saturday evening viewing. Pigs battling it out, a kind of “Porkie’s Got Talent” and a plethora of terrible bacon-related puns from Dermot?

Alas, it was one of many subtitling errors on Saturday’s opening to the new series. I think they meant to say “big talent”?

Yes, the X Factor is back. Which means the return of tone-deaf singers, lots of shouting from Dermot, fashion wars between Dannii and Cheryl and TRULY AWFUL subtitles.

Every year, it gets worse. Numerous typos and subtitles so out of sync with what’s being said that I only get the lame jokes around 5 minutes later. I could kind of forgive it for the live shows (though BBC news manage to at least appear to be trying to match the speech with the subtitles) but even on non-live shows, the subtitles on the X Factor are among the worse I’ve seen on any programme.

Is there some assumption at ITV that they don’t need to bother with decent subtitles because deaf people don’t listen to music? If so, then this is a pretty idiotic and offensive assumption to make. Lots of deaf children and young people watch and enjoy the X Factor. It’s unacceptable they don’t have equal access to what is one of ITV’s most popular shows.

I’ve emailed them to complain – if you want to do the same, the email address is I’ll keep a keen eye out for any more errors in coming weeks.

Stats on cinema access in UK

Image courtesy of NDCS

I popped along to a disability working group for cinemas yesterday and I was reminded that, however much I moan about cinema access, there have been big changes since I was a young person. And, compared to most other major countries, Britain is ahead of the pack.

Consider a few stats:

* 19 out of the top 20 UK releases last year were available with subtitles at the cinema (I think the offending omission may have been the Twilight film…)
* 300 plus cinemas have subtitled facilities, around half of all cinemas. This compares to around 20 in 2003. Those that don’t, tend to be smaller, independent cinemas.
* There are 550 subtitled films shown nationwide weekly

Apparently, the UK is the only country in the EU that offers subtitled films on this scale.

Not that there still isn’t a lot of progress to be made. Lots of subtitled films are still on only at the off-peak “graveyard” slots. “Technical problems” still crop up. And I still have a dream that one day I’ll be able to go into any cinema and ask for on-demand subtitles on any film. Encouragingly though, cinemas seem to be listening to these points, as the very existence of the disability working group shows.

But, since I’m in a good mood today, I think it’s worth praising the cinemas for the progress made so far. Do you agree that things are better than they used to be? What progress do you want to see next?

PS Just a reminder that you can see which subtitled films are showing in your area at