Communications regulator Ofcom is to begin monitoring the quality of TV subtitles from next year, to help improve the service for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
Following a consultation into subtitling launched in May 2013, Ofcom is now going to force broadcasters to measure the quality of their subtitling on live TV programmes every six months, for two years. The aim is to publish the data and "encourage" broadcasters to address any aspects where quality can be improved.
More than a million people with hearing impairments use subtitles to watch TV. However, in a recent study Ofcom found that up to 7.6 million people have used TV subtitles – many people without hearing impairments use subtitling to add clarity to TV programmes.
In its consultation, Ofcom found that pre-prepared subtitling is "generally of good quality", but viewers claim "there are continuing problems with the speed, accuracy, synchronisation and presentation of live subtitles."
With live programming, subtitles are delayed by several seconds and are prone to errors as subtitlers furiously try to relay what's happening in the programme. Ofcom said live subtitles also scroll across the screen rather than appear as blocks of text, which its says is more demanding for viewers.
The regulator is therefore encouraging broadcasters to use more block subtitles and to consider whether, in programmes which are not time-sensitive, broadcasters could introduce delays in transmission to make it easier to insert better-quality subtitles.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom consumer group director, said: "We are taking important steps towards improving the quality of subtitling on live programmes for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
"Ofcom expects regular reporting by broadcasters to help improve subtitles over time, as well as allowing us to identify exactly which areas need most progress."
Around 70 channels are required by Ofcom to provide subtitling. If broadcasters attract a viewing share of more than 0.05% then they must provide subtitles, provided that they can meet the assessed cost by paying no more than 1% of their relevant turnover.
The amount of subtitling has risen from 10% on most channels to 80% or more in 2013.