David Blunkett: Broadcasters 'failing' blind and deaf people

David Blunkett David Blunkett claimed broadcasters worshipped younger viewers

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David Blunkett has hit out at broadcasters for "frustrating" subtitles that leave deaf people "scratching their heads".

The MP, who was born blind, also accused TV executives of failing people with impaired vision by not dubbing foreign dramas into English.

Writing in the Radio Times, Blunkett said TV executives were guilty of "worshipping the cult of youth".

"Broadcasters talk a good deal about equality, but preaching is not enough."

The former Labour home secretary said TV chiefs needed to have a "little consideration and forethought" to achieve a "better television experience for everyone".

"In an ageing population, people with hearing and sight impairments are becoming part of the mainstream," he said.

"It's no longer about a minority: We're a major sector of the viewing public, and we have the same rights as everyone else who pays the licence fee."


Subtitlers for live TV shows listen to broadcasts and say what they hear into a microphone; a computer turns these spoken words into text for viewers at home. Sometimes the software translates words incorrectly; hilarious and unfortunate examples are regularly posted to the web. So the problem is mostly about accuracy, though deaf people also complain about the delay in translation.

In pre-recorded programmes like dramas, subtitlers have more time to create and format a script. Audio description is not so commonplace and in the UK has only been widely available for 10 years on TV.

Unless you can speak French, subtitled dramas like Channel 4's The Returned are inaccessible if you can't read the subtitles - this means blind people are excluded from this current trend. But if the show was dubbed by actors, viewers would complain.

Audio Description (AD) is broadcast on a separate channel that you can turn on or off. If an audio describer were to read the subtitles and also explain what's happening on screen - AD's usual job - it may be a complex and unsatisfying listen. It's a debate that broadcasters are currently having.

Blunkett, the first blind cabinet minister, also complained that blind people were left frustrated when foreign dramas and documentaries were not dubbed.

"I would have loved to enjoy The Killing and Borgen, but both shows were screened on BBC Four with English subtitles and no over-dubbing.

"I appreciate that many people don't like dubbed dialogue, but if you're blind it's invaluable - you can piece together the storylines simply by listening to what is said," he said.

Labour's former home secretary accused the TV industry of having an "unstoppable fetish" with pleasing younger viewers.

"It is the trendy, the metropolitan and, yes, the under-40s who determine what we view and what we listen to.

"But much of the spending power reflects an older age group. The ageing population wields a very powerful incentive - our financial muscle," he said.

Subtitles are used by more than a million people with hearing impairments to watch television.

Errors such as a weather forecast which warned of "mist and fox patches" could be fixed, said Blunkett, by investment in technology to improve subtitles, audio descriptions and voiceover translations.


"We need the commitment and will to achieve a better television experience for everyone," he added.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People agreed that "spoken subtitles" in addition to audio description would give "greater access" to blind or partially sighted people.

Start Quote

I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but muttering is something we could have a look at”

End Quote Lord Hall

The charity commended Channel 4 for "taking the lead" when it aired Spanish thriller Julia's Eyes with translations on the audio description feed of Film 4 earlier this month.

Channel 4 said it had received feedback that audiences generally prefer the "authenticity of original voices rather than dubbing".

A spokesperson added that the broadcaster was working with the RNIB to further develop audio description services to make its content accessible "to as wide a group of individuals as possible".

Further efforts to improve subtitling and audio description are being made by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, which is working with deaf and hearing impaired viewers, as well as broadcasters, to address audience concerns.

Introducing a time delay to live programmes is one proposal being considered, with a plan of action due in the next couple of months.

BBC director general Tony Hall has also pledged to help older viewers who struggle to hear programmes over background music.

He told the Radio Times in July that it was important to balance people's needs as they get older with the "creative need of a director to put in music or sounds that help to make the drama or the programme more real and vital".

"I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at," he added.

In response to Blunkett's comments, the BBC said it made every effort to ensure is programmes were accessible to all.

"We are proud of our record of being the first UK broadcaster to subtitle 100% of programmes on our main channels, and we routinely exceed our targets for programmes which have audio description.

"However, as always, we will continue to work to improve the quality of our services."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    When live news etc. is being presented, why do we see these jerky, time-lagged and erroneous subtitles? Presenters are normally reading from autocue screens, so why can't the autocue material itself be shown as the presenter speaks? Surely the BBC in particular can afford 21st-century technology?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I've been proundly deaf since birth and now, in my late 40s, I rely upon subtitles to enlighten me to what exactly is being said by people on my TV. I agree that people with sensory disabilities are still considered 3rd class citizens and, as such, too little emphasis is placed on appeasing them and their needs.

    Come on TV-land...you know you CAN do better!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I'm deaf I was nt till 4 years ago then I found myself in a world that is very unfair to deaf or hard of hearing people,yes some subtitles work fine other are hopelessly muddled ,for the wrong programme I lost count how many of these I have found or just don't work live programmes are much worse.yet I pay the same fee as normal hearing people yet I an oly enjoy half he programmes.it needs fixing .

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The quality of subtitling may well benefit from improvement, but dubbing foreign dramas into English? NO NO NO
    Please leave the original soundtrack alone, it has nothing to do with the 'culture of youth' but everything to do with the culture of quality.
    Dubbed dramas lose all atmosphere.
    DVDs of foreign dramas usually have a choice of soundtracks, let Mr Blunkett buy those should he wish.


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