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Ofcom revises accessibility code to include streaming TV services

The code requires video program providers to offer accessibility features like subtitles and descriptive audio.

The code requires video program providers to offer accessibility features like subtitles and descriptive audio.

A streaming TV viewer watches an Amazon Prime Video show on a tablet. (Courtesy image)
A streaming TV viewer watches an Amazon Prime Video show on a tablet. (Courtesy image)

British media regulator Ofcom has revised its Access Service Code to include digital catch-up and streaming television services for the first time.

The revision means commercial services like ITVX, Channel 4, Netflix, Comcast’s Now TV and Amazon’s Prime Video must now offer accessibility features like subtitles, descriptive audio and sign language interpretation or presentation if those services reach more than 0.05 percent of the British television audience over a consecutive 12-month period.

“Our approach focuses on outcomes for audiences, allowing the use of a range of technologies,” an Ofcom spokesperson said in a statement this week.

The refresh came after Ofcom solicited feedback from British TV viewers, particularly those who depend on accessibility features to enjoy television programs. Those viewers said they wanted consistency in features like subtitles and descriptive audio across services, whether they’re broadcast or streaming, according to the agency.

In addition to the new requirements, Ofcom is also providing guidance to broadcasters and streamers on certain best practices, to include an encouragement that video providers offer users the ability to customize various options related to subtitling and other features, and the understanding that video providers may need to serve specific audience types with unique features, including those with cognitive or neurological conditions.

Video content producers and distributors were allowed to submit comments to Ofcom ahead of their Access Service Code review. Last October, New York-based Paramount Global — which operates Channel 5 in the United Kingdom as well as localized versions of Paramount Plus and Pluto TV — said it welcomed the changes, “which are, in many instances, simplifications that will allow broadcasters and content providers to be more efficient in their operations and improve audience outcomes.”

Paramount said it already had the ability to provide some accessibility features on Channel 5 and certain Paramount-owned pay TV networks in the United Kingdom, including subtitles and descriptive audio, though it said it currently lacks the resources to provide live descriptive audio or sign language presentation during national emergencies and other breaking news matters.

“The provision of live audio description and visual signing are capabilities we continue to investigate for the future, working with our access services and playout providers,” Paramount said in a statement reviewed by The Desk. The company added that it would “balance this requirement against the provision of these services by other broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV,” which it believed British television viewers were more likely to watch during civil emergencies or breaking news situations of national importance.

With respect to live subtitles, Paramount said it works hard to ensure that the latency between what is said on air and what is presented in text on television is no more than 4 seconds, though the time frame is not guaranteed across all programs or in each instance. Paramount affirmed it franchises subtitles from its programs aired in syndication from the United States and Australia to “minimize duplication efforts while increasing accessibility to viewers.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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