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When you can't quite hear the TV, subtitles are critical

One great advantage of the digital TV services is that every TV set has access to subtitles.

Ofcom makes the broadcasters comply with the law.    Photograph: Flickr
Ofcom makes the broadcasters comply with the law. Photograph: Flickr
published on UK Free TV

For the many people with partial hearing loss or total deafness – as well as those who need to listen with the sound off – subtitles allow people to enjoy the TV. 

A great deal of thought and effort has gone into providing these services: the laws to require broadcasters to provide them, the technical challenges to make them work and the human time and effort to provide them alongside upwards of 80% of the TV programmes broadcast in the UK.


The design


Say hello to Tiresias ScreenFont! This is a special font designed for subtitles on British TV.      The proportions of the letters and numbers are designed to allow easy differentiation between similar characters (for example lower case L and number 1, zero and O) and with larger-sized lower-case letters.    It also has typewriter-style "a" and long "descenders" (g j q p y) whilst being slightly narrow to get a useful number of words per line. 




The rules

Here are some of the rules[3] – you might be aware of them:

  • Capital letter (V) height is 20 pixels on a 480-line standard display and at least 50% bright.  Usually they have a 100% black background.
  • Tiresias Screenfont is required for Freeview, and used for Sky and Freesat.
  • They must sit within the 4:3 cutout so they aren't cut off on an old shaped TV.
  • They should never cover the face of the speaker.
  • They are usually white but can use yellow, cyan and green to denote different speakers.
  • Normally two lines, three are allowed if the picture can still be seen.    
  • The speed of words is between 160 and 180 words per minute (three a second, keep up!)
  • Words must be synchronised with speech, unless they are being done live.
  • They use a # sign to denote music, CAPITAL LETTERS FOR SHOUTING and mumbling is written out as such.    Sounds effects are also written out.
  • With live programmes the subtitles should not run more than three seconds behind live.


Ofcom requires…

The law requires that Ofcom demand any TV channel that has more than 0.05% of the viewing provide subtitles.     This starts with a requirement to provide 10% in the first and second years rising to 35% (two more years) 60% (another two) 70% (three more) and eventually 80%.  

The BBC policy is to provide subtitles on "all BBC TV programmes".   Here are the list of channels that have to provide subtitles.


Why don't channels just provide subtitles?

People often ask why channels don't just provide subtitles without being required to.   The answer is: money.   Providing subtitles is costly and the proportion of costs for a channel with less than 0.05% of the total viewing is disproportionate. 

Adding subtitles to BBC One, with over 21% of viewing costs the same as for a channel like True Entertainment that has about one hundredth.   Whilst it is true that they might get some extra viewers, the cost of acquisition  (creating, synchronizing and broadcasting the subtitles) would exceed any extra income they could make from showing these new viewers adverts.

It is true that channels often show programmes that have been provided with subtitles on other media (such as DVD or foreign TV closed captions) but if the content has been visually edited for timing or legal reasons, the whole show's subtitles will need careful (and therefore costly) reworking.


Which channels will have subtitles in 2016?

Channels - with their current share of viewing[2]:

BBC 1 21.157%,  ITV 11.744%, BBC 2 5.116%, Channel 4 4.47%, Channel 5 3.152%, ITV 3 1.23%, ITV 2 1.113%, ITV HD 1.016%, E4 0.817%, Cbeebies 0.808%, BBC 3 0.739%, Film4 0.721%, Dave 0.702%, BBC News 0.636%, ITV 4 0.625%, More4 0.619%, Sky 1 0.573%, 5 USA 0.548%, Sky Sports 1 0.538%, BBC 4 0.529%, ITV +1 0.516%, Drama 0.49%, Channel 4+1 0.486%, Pick TV 0.484%, Sky News 0.452%, Sky Sports News HQ 0.371%, Yesterday 0.365%, E4 +1 0.35%, Sky Living 0.323%, Really 0.307%, Quest 0.305%, Sky ports 2 0.292%, 5* 0.284%, CBBC 0.283%, Comedy Central 0.277%, ITV 2 +1 0.275%, Disney Junior 0.254%, Challenge TV 0.238%, Fox 0.233%, G.O.L.D. 0.233%, ITVBe 0.226% Watch 0.221%, Nick Jr 0.214%, Universal 0.207%, Alibi 0.199%, 4Music 0.193%, 4seven 0.183%, CITV 0.169%, Sky Atlantic 0.168%, Sky Movies Disney 0.158%, Film4 +1 0.51%, TLC 0.149%, BT Sport 1 0.148%, Discovery 0.147%, Cartoon Network 0.145%, Sky Movies Premiere 0.134%, Quest+1 0.129%, Disney Channel 0.126%, ITV 3 +1 0.126%, Dave ja vu 0.12%, Sky Sports 4 0.114%, Sky Sports 3 0.114%, Nick Jr 2 0.113%, Boomerang 0.108%, Nickelodeon 0.104%, MTV 0.099%, Nicktoons 0.099%, Sky Sports 5 0.95%, Sky Movies Family 0.09%, More4 +1 0.09%, Viva 0.089%, Sky 2 0.086%, Sky Sports F1 0.08%, Sky Movies Action & Adventure 0.078%, Sky Movies Showcase 0.071%, Sky Movies Greats 0.07%, Sky Living  +1 0.069%, Comedy Central +1 0.069%, Good Food 0.068%, Animal Planet 0.066%, G.O.L.D.+1 0.059%, Disney Channel +1 0.057%, Sky Movies Comedy 0.057%, Sky Movies Drama & Romance 0.057%, BT Sport 2 0.056%, ITV Encore 0.056%, Disney XD 0.055%.

Note that BBC Alba, ITVBe, ITV Encore, Sky Sports 5, BT Sport 2 and Fox will start their requirement to provide in 2016.


Which channels will have subtitles in 2017?

Looking further ahead, looking at the current year to date, these extra channels will be required to provide subtitles in 2017:

CBS Reality 0.306%, True Entertainment 0.228%, more>movies/movies mix 0.215%, Star Plus 0.187%, Movies4Men 0.176%, Pop 0.157%, CBS Action 0.57%, Tiny Pop 0.15%, Syfy 0.131%, Food Network 0.122%, TruTV 0.117%, Horror Channel 0.099%, Disney Junior Plus 0.094%, Eurosport 0.093%, Investigation Discovery 0.085%,History 0.081%, TCM 0.08%, Crime + Investigation 0.079%, Lifetime 0.073%, Colors TV 0.071%, E! 0.07%, Eurosport 2 0.069%, HUM Europe 0.066%, National Geographic 0.063%, ARY News 0.062%, BBC RB 601 0.061%, Movies 24 0.06%, Cartoonito 0.059%, Discovery Turbo 0.057%, Spike 0.056%, attheraces 0.053%, Rishtey .052%, Movies 24+ 0.051%, True Movies 1 0.051%,


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In this section
Having problems with TV background music? 1

Monday, 12 August 2019
Lynne Hickey
4:08 PM

Two years ago that food network would plan for subtitle but still no subtitles that broken promise of rule

link to this comment
Lynne Hickey's 2 posts GB flag
Tuesday, 27 October 2020
Clare harding
8:32 PM

My new LG Tv has subtitles that are out of sync with speech. My old Samsung TV didn't have this problem except of course with live broadcasts. As a hearing impaired person this is completely spoiling my tv viewing. Can I do anything about it?

link to this comment
Clare harding's 1 post GB flag
Wednesday, 28 October 2020

1:58 AM

Clare harding:

What were you watching when this problem occurred?
Is it happening with all BBC & ITV channels?
If the answer to the 2nd question is yes, which model of LG TV is it?

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Chris.SE's 4,180 posts GB flag
Thursday, 5 August 2021
Denise chafer
11:37 PM

So Channels/ programmes often don't have subtitles for the hearing impaired/ deaf because it is expensive . Yet without exception all have music or some sort of noise classed as music - Does that come free then ? Does that not cost ? Yet often this very music is often unecessary - particulary when speech is involved. Very often it is difficult to hear what is being said because of the music/background sound. Why is music there at all when someone is speaking ? Does it do anything to further the understanding of what is being said - or does it detract ? Certainly. some hearing impaired people - though not all - might be able to distinguish what is being said if the volume of the music was not louder then the volume of the speech, which it frequently is. Music does not help understanding & sound discrimination. Subtitles do.

link to this comment
Denise chafer's 1 post GB flag
Friday, 6 August 2021

12:54 AM

Denise chafer:

I think a lot of people including those who are not "technically" hearing impaired will agree with you about the unnecessary so called music (noise) making it difficult to distinguish what is being said!

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Chris.SE's 4,180 posts GB flag
Friday, 1 October 2021
Sue Harding
5:33 PM

Clare harding: why am I now not getting subtitles on home and away and neighboursthis has only just happened on here I'm very hard of hearing and they are important to me. They also dont appear on itv hub yet the programmes do have them on itv
Hope you can help with this

link to this comment
Sue Harding's 1 post GB flag
Susan Harding
5:37 PM

Clare harding: why am I now not getting
subtitles on home and away and neighbours
this has only just happened on here I'm very
hard of hearing and they are important to me.
They also dont appear on itv hub yet the
programmes do have them on itv
Hope you can help with this

link to this comment
Susan Harding's 2 posts GB flag
Susan Harding
5:38 PM

Clare harding: why am I now not getting
subtitles on home and away and neighbours,
this has only just happened on here I'm very
hard of hearing and they are important to me.
They also don't appear on itv hub, yet the
programmes do have them on itv
Hope you can help with this problem

link to this comment
Susan Harding's 2 posts GB flag

6:40 PM

Susan Harding: Channel 4 and Channel 5 have been having various problems (including loss of subtitles) since a fire at the Red Bee Media Broadcast Centre in London last week, which has affected many channels from different broadcasters to varying extents. All affected broadcasters have switched their playout operations to backup systems at other locations, however not all services are fully functioning on all channels. There has been no announcement yet as to when things are expected to be back to normal.

link to this comment
StevensOnln1's 3,636 posts GB flag
Monday, 4 October 2021
Tony Hill

11:47 AM

I have always noted - and continue to find - that subtitles on ITV on FreeSAT, flash on and off erratically but on FreeVIEW they do not. I am assuming that it may have something to do with distance travelled up to and down from the satellite. Is this so?
Consequently, we (who always have subtitles on for drama and most documentaries) always watch ITV on Freeview.
Also do agree about so-called music/noise. Get rid of it.

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Tony Hill's 65 posts RO flag
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