Broadcasters will have to measure the quality of the subtitles they provide on live television programmes, the broadcasting watchdog has announced.
Deaf campaigners welcomed the decision by Ofcom, but said it was “long overdue”.
The results of an Ofcom consultation showed viewers noting problems with the speed, accuracy and presentation of live subtitles, while they often appeared out of time with the pictures.
Under the new measures, broadcasters will have to collect data on the number and type of errors, as well as subtitling speeds and latency (the gap between the words being spoken on screen and the corresponding subtitle appearing).
Ofcom will produce reports every six months for two years, with the first due next spring.
The watchdog will use the reports to decide whether to make changes to its current guidance on latency and speed, and whether to set targets for broadcasters.
Maria Zedda, managing director of the disability equality consultancy Wideaware Training, said: “The Ofcom audit is an excellent idea because it will force broadcasters to be less lax about the quality of the subtitles, or the lack of them.
“It’s important they realise there are approximately nine million people with hearing loss in the UK alone who need equal access to TV, and all programmes, not just mainstream ones.”
Her type of hearing loss means she completely depends on subtitles to understand television, but she said that quality subtitling also benefits other groups, such as people whose first language is not English.
Live programming and some pre-recorded programmes have to be subtitled live, but this means subtitles are delayed by several seconds and are often error-ridden.
They also usually scroll across the screen, which research suggests is more demanding for viewers than block subtitles, in which several words appear together in a single block.
Some broadcasters have proposed making greater use of block subtitling in news bulletins and other programmes that mix pre-recorded and live content.
But Ofcom wants broadcasters to go further and use short transmission delays – of up to about 30 seconds – in some programmes which are not time-sensitive, to allow better quality subtitling.
The European Federation of Hard of Hearing People (EFHOH) welcomed the Ofcom announcement, and said it hoped “the drive to improve quality not just quantity is taken up by other [European Union] member states’ media regulators”.
Lidia Best-Smolarek, a member of EFHOH’s subtitling experts group, said they were pleased that Ofcom was encouraging broadcasters to work on introducing a time delay on some programmes, as this would “definitely improve quality of viewing experience for hard of hearing and deaf people”.
But she said there were concerns that broadcasters themselves would be collecting the subtitling data, rather than Ofcom introducing independent monitoring and collection of complaints.
She said: “Viewers have consistently been complaining to both subtitling providers and broadcasters, and those concerns were always met with standard responses which did not give much confidence.”
The National Association of Deafened People said: “This is a long overdue measurement as quality is something that deaf people are very conscious they are not consistently receiving, despite broadcasters assuring us otherwise.
“The report is awaited with interest and we look forward to improvements in the speed and latency of subtitles as well as in the error rate, which hopefully this audit will encourage.”
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer group director, said: “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.”
Under Ofcom’s code on television access services, the amount of subtitling has risen from 10 per cent on most channels to at least 80 per cent in 2013.