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Broadcast Captioning in the UK

When you google broadcast captioning mandates in the U.S., you’re immediately directed to the FCC website where you get tons of information detailing the closed captioning rules and requirements that U.S. broadcasters must follow for both over-the-air and streamed programming. If they fail to comply, there are repercussions, such as penalties and fines.

But, unlike in the U.S. where the FCC closed captioning mandate is spelled out and easy to find, similar information about captioning in the UK is comparatively harder to find, leaving one to piece together information to get the big picture. Broadly speaking, media broadcast nationally throughout the UK is legally required to provide captioning, including terrestrial, satellite TV, and cable companies, as well as cinemas and DVDs. However, there are no easily discernible online references to potential penalties or fines for non-compliance.

While the U.S. has the FCC, the Brits have Ofcom, an independent agency entrusted by Parliament with certain regulatory duties. These include ensuring that the British public gets high-quality service from TV, radio, broadband, and mail delivery. Funded by the companies they regulate, Ofcom is quick to point out that their powers are limited to regulatory actions, such as conducting investigations into failures to provide captioning, but that matters are then referred to arbitration or other entities that can carry out legal action. 

On its website, ofcom.org.uk, Ofcom states its commitment to ensuring quality communications services for the disabled; namely, “Ofcom has a duty under the Communications Act to have regard for the needs of disabled people when making and implementing regulatory decisions”. And, at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/advice-for-consumers/accessibility/services-for-disabled-people, readers can find information specific to Broadcasting Services by scrolling to the bottom of that page. 

In terms of subtitling (their term for captioning), currently 70 channels are required to provide some level of subtitling; however, the BBC has committed to subtitling 100 percent of its programming. As the UK’s premier broadcaster, the BBC captions all programming on its seven channels, including BBC One, Two, Three and Four, plus CBBC, Cbeebies (for kids), and the BBC News TV Channel. It’s also worth noting that the BBC was the first British broadcaster to provide subtitles in the UK. They began in 1979 by delivering captions via “teletext,” a now defunct framework for broadcasting text and rudimentary graphics to suitably equipped TV sets.

Ofcom’s broadcast captioning rules also allow for the use of audio description of programming for the visually impaired. Leading broadcasters ITV, Channel 4, channel 5, and S4C make audio description available, and it can be turned on or off like captions. Cable and satellite viewers outside of London may need to switch to a different channel to access this service. In addition, “low audience channels” can present programs in sign language, or optionally pay money to the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust, which has been set up to commission programs presented in sign language. 

A Broadcastnow.co.uk article (https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/broadcast-magazine/its-high-time-subtitles-were-mandatory-across-the-board/5166166.article), in December 2021, refers to Ofcom quotas that 90 percent of all programming on British Ch4 and ITV, and 100 percent of BBC programming, be captioned. But the article points out that media streamed from the UK is not consistently held to the same legal standard that applies to broadcast TV.

At ENCO, we pride ourselves on pioneering advanced products, like enCaption, that automates the captioning process in near-real-time, enabling broadcasters to deliver accurate and comprehensive captions to viewers via on-premises and cloud solutions. Learn more at enco.com.

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