Understanding It All: Improving the Standard of Subtitling

“Imagine watching an emergency like the Black Saturday bushfires or the Queensland floods on a television news program – seeing the SES and Government spokespersons telling everyone how to protect themselves and their families – with none or jumbled subtitles. No way to know what they are saying, how to stay safe or where to evacuate to.” 1

These were the words of deaf Australian, Karen Lloyd, who on the 5thof July 2012 welcomed the country’s new legislation towards increasing subtitling services. The passing of this legislation enables Australians with sensory impairments to enjoy the same access to televised news and entertainment as their fellow countrymen. For the rest of the world, it is an invitation to follow suit.

At this month’s upcoming Language & the Media conference Alex Varley, CEO of Media Access Australia (MAA), will be discussing new developments in attempts to measure the quality of subtitling services around the world, analysing their successes and short-comings while drawing comparisons with the new Australian regulations.

Sometimes it can be easy to forget that services we have become accustomed to and rely on, such as television broadcasts, are themselves the products of businesses that need to post profits in order to stay afloat. This is especially true in times of financial uncertainty such as these. It is therefore understandable why live broadcasting, which is generally cheaper to produce than pre-recorded broadcasting, is the industry’s preferred way of going about things. But by its very nature, live broadcasting poses a problem for the quality of subtitling services as it simultaneously requires live captioning. This is one of the reasons why strict regulation of all broadcast subtitling is needed in order to maintain its accuracy. Languages & The Media asked Alex Varley a few questions about how this problem is being tackled in Australia and other parts of the world, and what more can be done.

At Languages & The Media you will be discussing real-world attempts to measure the quality of subtitling, drawing particularly on recent Australian legislation. Can you tell us why this new Australian legislation is so important for media accessibility?

Alex Varley: The legislation (Broadcasting Services Amendment – Improved Access to Television Services – Act 2012) covers subtitle quality for the first time. Up until now the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), has only looked at poor quality in the context of it being so bad that it can then rule that subtitles were not provided. This new approach means that it has the ability to deal with general quality issues.

Why is it that regulators are turning to statistical measures to monitor the quality of broadcast subtitling? Do you feel that using statistical measures as a primary means of quality control is the best way of ensuring high quality subtitling?

Alex Varley: From a regulator’s perspective, statistical measures make it easier to monitor. You can just set up rules based on defined metrics and if the subtitles don’t meet those metrics then they can be judged to have breached the rules. There are a number of problems with this approach. First, there is no clear agreement on what the metrics should be. For example with accuracy on live programming it ranges from 75%-100%. Which standard is right? More importantly, the metrics don’t look at the key factor, which is whether a viewer can understand the subtitle. A simple example of this is you could have a live interview about the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in which an error has occurred and her name is misspelt as “Merkal” throughout. This appears so many times that it takes the subtitle error percentage to 91% where the local standard is 95%. So it is clear breach, but is it really? Most viewers would just say, “they spelt her name incorrectly”, or not even notice. Yet you could also have two or three words in a bulletin that were garbled to be total nonsense, yet they might have been the most important words in the bulletin. The error count may keep it above 95% but the viewer is left not understanding what happened.

In certain parts of Europe live television broadcasts are delayed in order to synchronise subtitles more closely with dialogue. Is this something that should be encouraged in other countries?

Alex Varley: That is certainly an interesting approach and it does deliver the result of wanting synchronised subtitles. There are apparent legal problems in some countries where the delaying of transmissions would mean that the broadcasters are liable to be sued, or somebody could gain an advantage (such as gaming shows). I think the real issue that this highlights is that the main problems with subtitling are around live subtitles. The Australian approach is framed around “live subtitling is a last resort”. So in a news bulletin many sections within it are not live. The stories have been filed hours or minutes before broadcast, the teleprompter has been set up for the links. These can all be subtitled as synchronised block subtitles and then scrolling subtitles can be used for the “true” live segments. One of the major networks in Australia, the Seven Network, uses this so-called “hybrid” method and the viewers love it.

Cost-cutting within the industry has meant that Subtitles are often of the lowest acceptable standard. What would you say can be done to counteract this?

Alex Varley: A key factor is understanding how the market works and who has the power to dictate pricing and standards. Most television networks will happily take a lower quality standard for a lower price. So you have to break that link and the best way is to have a strong regulator that says live subtitles are a last resort and we will look at viewer comprehension as the main measure. To back this up, there also needs to be clear statements on what is expected. For example, live sport is expected to have scrolling live subtitles; a news bulletin is expected to have a mix; and a program that is not live, even if it is finished an hour or two before broadcast should have synchronised block subtitles. If the supply industry knows that they are the basic rules that all broadcasters have to follow then it helps by drawing a bottom line on how you can cut costs. If the regulator then enforces this properly, with strong penalties, the networks have to accept this and provide good quality subtitles.

By William Whiteman

Reference: 1 http://remark.uk.com/newsid-900_Australian%20TV%20subtitles%20law%20passed (accessed 04/11/1987)

First publication: http://languages-media.com, November 2012