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Television subtitles research for Ofcom shows channels are improving

Television channels have improved the quality of their subtitles, meaning more hard of hearing people than ever before can understand programmes from news bulletins to chat shows, according to new research for Ofcom by the University of Roehampton.

Posted: 1 December 2014

image for news story Television subtitles research for Ofcom shows channels are improving
Dr Pablo Romero-Fresco who has carried out in-depth research for Ofcom on the quality of television subtitles

However, the research, by Dr Pablo Romero-Fresco found that while a quarter of programmes had a very good standard of subtitling, another quarter were ‘substandard’.

Ofcom and TV companies use a mathematical model developed by Dr Romero-Fresco to assess the quality of subtitles, which the University has agreed to independently validate to ensure fairness and accuracy across the sector. The NER model is also used by a number of regulators in Europe because of the wide variety of information it provides, helping them to raise standards.

The results of the latest assessment for UK terrestrial TV were contained in a recent Ofcom report, in which Dr Romero Fresco said: “In general, the quality of subtitles has increased which is very much to the credit of the subtitlers, especially given how challenging some of the programmes are. Yet on several occasions, subtitlers have been let down by a series of technical issues that account for the increase of substandard programmes. These issues have resulted in subtitles being out of place, garbled, linked to the next ones or delayed for up to 40 seconds.”

His latest analysis for Ofcom, developed with colleague Inma Pedregosa studied 10 minute clips from 72 different news, entertainment and chat show programmes across all terrestrial channels, using the NER model. This measures accuracy, but also gives an assessment of subtitles in every programme, including issues relating to delays, the positioning of the text on screen, their speed, flow and identification of speakers.

It found entertainment programmes had the highest accuracy rates, at 98.91 per cent, because of the lower average speech rate. Half of entertainment programmes had excellent or very good subtitles, with only two programmes failing to meet minimum quality standards.

News programmes have a much higher speech rate and are harder to edit, but Dr Romero-Fresco praised the ‘significant and commendable effort to edit less than in entertainment programmes, and keeping the accuracy rate high at 98.77 per cent. A rate of 98.0 per cent is deemed as good by the University.

Dr Romero-Fresco’s work for Ofcom means students studying in the University's Department of Media, Culture and Language will have first-hand knowledge of how the television industry is regulated, and how the needs of viewers with hearing loss and those who do not speak English as a first language are being supported by regulators.

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