Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bad Subtitling On The TV - What the Hell's Going On?

This blog update has been on my mind for a very long time now. It is in regards to the rife lack lustre subtitling on the television today where it seems all channels are pushing for quantity over quality....and it’s not working.

Although not having any hearing I hold music very, very close to my heart, it’s part of the reason why I moved to London, to get into the broadcast music industry (and am still trying, however having a profoundly deaf music nut is a bit too quirky for a lot of industry people to get their heads around it seems!). For me, and other deaf people, to follow music on the TV, the main way is through subtitling. Up until a few years back everything has been perfectly in sync with what was being sung, however subtitling technology has changed. there seems to be much more emphasis on more quantity rather than quality these days and as a result it has all gone to hell. Here, I’ll give you some examples as I go along.....

Ever since the sad demise of ‘Top Of The Pops’ there has been a rather large hole to fill at the BBC, ‘Later ....With Jools Holland’ fills this chasm. It is the BBC’s premier music show, and the one by which all other shows are now measured. So, come the Friday night broadcast, which was recorded on the previous Tuesday night, why are the subtitles not in sync with what is being sung? Here are the Scissor Sister with Any Which Way:

Now, for the able-hearing, to give you a little insight on a hard of hearing person, pop some ear mufflers on and turn the sound down a tad, now try to follow the sound of the music, lip reading the singer and try to match to the on screen subtitles....it’s difficult right? I can tell you something, it is absolutely bloody frustrating for a deaf person to follow that. The subtitles in the above video were done by Red Bee Media.

Now, I do hold Red Bee Media in very high regard as their subtitling output is astonishing and 7 times out of 10 they get it right. Sadly it’s ‘the other 3’ we have problems with. I have complained to them and they have explained things to me. I know that live performances will never be subtitled in sync, and I really do appreciate that wholeheartedly. However there is really no excuse for the repeats and highlight shows not to have the subtitles perfectly in place. I have been told by someone working in the subtitling teams that the tech edits are often delivered ‘late’.... this isn’t our (the public’s) problem, it is the broadcasters’ problem to deal with. If they’re continually late, get someone else to do this role, it’s a basic management decision so why isn’t it being done?

And oh yes, before I forget, the BBC iPlayer.... get the Jools Holland show up on the iPlayer.... oh darn, the subtitles are all over the place on there as well – new technology eh, what a load of arse!

Want to see another example? OK here’s Kasabian from Glastonbury in 2010:

The subtitles are completely out of whack and this performance was from a highlights show broadcast quite some time after the event.

Here’s Placebo from their Glastonbury performance in 1997/98 I think it was:

The subtitles are perfectly in time to Brian Molko’s vocals...’nuff said.

No more excuses! No more fobbing the deaf community off!

Here's another one, pre-recorded Jamie Cullum at the Royal Albert Hall......crap subtitles:

It’s not just the BBC, the band Hurts have recently done a promotion programme on Channel 4 and again all of the subtitles are out of sync:

This was also done by Red Bee Media. I have a terrible feeling that they are running ‘speech to text’ systems, a music programme is really not the right place to use this transcription service. You cannot experiment with music shows in this way – what’s the point? Tell me, please, what is the point? If the subtitles are completely out of sync there is absolutely no access for the deaf and hard of hearing, it’s bloody ridiculous and not to mention discriminative! I became really down with the second episode of Jools Holland, the first episode had subtitles out of sync.... I put it down to ‘teething problems’ (more on this in a moment) as the subs for the first edition of the series are usually off kilter. However to have the subtitles out of whack on the second show has absolutely no excuse whatsoever. SORT IT OUT!

‘Teething problems’ is a bad phrase for me to use...looking at the first broadcast of the series with the subtitles being out of sync and the ‘Oh dear, well I suppose it is the first show so I’ll let them off’....no, hang on... these series’ have been running for many years, the BBC have had perfect subtitling in place before. There is absolutely no excuse for shoddy subtitling with ‘Later ...with Jools Holland’ in any way or form. Any music show that is pre-recorded should have subtitles in sync, if they’re not then it’s obvious that someone/some company is not pulling their weight. For the BBC I (and most people out there) pay a license fee, that, I add, is increased each and every year. I certainly do not pay my license fee for shit subtitling, we’re getting fobbed off so get it fixed please. Here's one of Garbage's performances on on a previous edition of Jools Holland that has been subtitled later on by Phil (AKA 'Muzzy Fush), perfectly in sync subtitles:

Putting the TV subtitling to one side; the following excerpt is from a Nine Inch Nails DVD which was fully encrypted with subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing: (I am unable to embed, the link is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPrsogKNcUU )

Why are so few music DVD's encrypted with subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing? It's a big market and lots of money to be had by the music companies, yet they are completely ignoring this section of the market. It's pure ignorance.

As for the more regular TV shows, I settled down the other night and glanced the new Rhod Gilbert panel based comedy show on the BBC, again it’s pre-recorded, again the subtitles are out of sync, huh???? Do the BBC not have anyone checking the quality of their broadcast programmes anymore?

Whilst we're on this subject, I also want to add that across on ITV2, you can’t have escaped the promotion for the new series of ‘Celebrity Juice’. Well certainly not here in London as it was a HUGE marketing campaign, TV adverts, papers, billboards and not forgetting all of the ‘celebrities’ on the show Tweeting about it left, right and centre..... and guess what? Oh my golly gosh, no subtitling whatsoever! Surprised? Well, considering what has already been discussed, maybe not!

It’s ridiculous, there’s no other way to describe it. These TV channels are actively alienating the deaf and hard of hearing community, I have never seen subtitling as bad as it is today and they say the technology has advanced, not in regards to the quality it hasn’t.

It must be sorted out, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, but right now.


  1. You need to promote your blog on Facebook? Great explorative examples of good and bad subtitling. I think you would get more support if you publicised wider< then people can signpost? X-Factor have improved their subtitles recently through campaigning!

  2. Hi, each broadcaster has to subtitle a certain amount of programming each year (even most digital channels), the target for each broadcaster is set by Ofcom. Although all programming on the BBC should now carry subtitling, ITV has different target set.

    The live subtitling used on programming can be difficult to follow, I think that it is down to the increase in the subtitling of live shows, if no script can be provided in advance then the subtitler would have to provide the subtitles live instead of prepared.

  3. Hello. You already know I share similar feelings to you on this. It is great you have been able to upload recordings as evidence of a worrying trend in poorer quality subtitles for music shows recently. I will link this in my blog in a follow up post.

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  5. The Jamie Cullum one's not just wrongly timed, but it also gets the lyrics wrong! It's "burden's on the receiver", not "bread was on the receiver", for instance. And "the room seemed to freeze in time", not "the rules".

    This, of course, could have been discovered easily by the subtitlers with a quick web search for the lyrics...

    (Edited because I threw one of my own mishearings in there. D'oh!)

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