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BBC iPlayer subtitles increase: our early Christmas present to hard of hearing people

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Jonathan Hassell | 14:44 UK time, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

It's been an amazing year for iPlayer, as the recent iPlayer day has shown.

As the person responsible for ensuring that iPlayer is giving the best experience it can to disabled audiences, I thought it would be worth looking back at how far we've come this year in the provision of subtitles for the service.

Before I look back on the year, I think it's worth looking at the history of subtitling on TV, just for comparison.

While the BBC Television Service started broadcasting in 1936, the first subtitled BBC programme became available in 1979 - a documentary about deaf children called 'Quietly in Switzerland' via the Ceefax service. It took until 1986 for us to subtitle our first live programme (an episode of Blue Peter), with the subtitling of news programmes following in 1990. And we finally achieved the landmark of having 100% of our programmes across the main BBC TV channels available with subtitles in May 2008.

So that's the story for broadcast TV. What about iPlayer?

Well, back when I started my role in February, the situation didn't look good - subtitles had been suspended from the iPlayer launch in December 2007 because a robust subtitling solution wasn't ready for launch.

However, since then, we have evolved the service immensely.


We introduced subtitles for download in May, and for the streaming service (above) at the end of June. And since then we have been working to get workflows in place to ensure subtitles can be delivered for iPlayer no matter how and when the programme in question is delivered to the Operations team, and for as many of the devices that Alex Nunes mentions in his iPlayer day blog as we can. While this is complex task, we have delivered new workflows to increase the amount of programmes with subtitles progressively since June.

And I'm delighted to announce that, in the last few days, we have launched new workflows to make subtitles available for two more categories of programme: live programmes (except those from BBC News and BBC Parliament channels, which we are still working on); and time-sensitive programmes which tend to change hours before transmission, and so have subtitles produced sometimes minutes before broadcast.

Since the workflows went live, our monitoring has found that they have increased the percentage of programmes with subtitles on iPlayer to over 90% today.

Please note that these new categories of programme will only have subtitles available in Flash Video format, as used in streaming and downloads using the new BBC iPlayer Desktop - downloads of these programmes via the old iPlayer Download Manager will not include subtitles, due to the limitations of the technology used in the Download Manager.

Please also note that, due to the separation between the workflows used to encode the programme and its subtitles on iPlayer, on occasions there can be a small window of time between a programme becoming available and its subtitles becoming available - if you find a programme does not have subtitles available, we'd encourage you to try again an hour later when the subtitles may be available.

I'd like to thank my colleagues in the iPlayer team (especially James Hewines, Alex Nunes, Steve Buttling-Smith, Marcus Box, Mary McCarthy, Ashley Hindmarsh, and Kemi Idowu), Andrew Strachan and David Kirby who did initial R&D, and the Operations Team for all of their hard work in making this possible.

In 2009, our aim is to continue leading the field of accessible video-on-demand services by doing further integration and innovation work to improve the subtitles you get from iPlayer. Key areas of investigation we have planned include:

- Improved live subtitle synchronisation - live subtitles on iPlayer, at present, are based on those from broadcast TV and we are still working on ensuring that the time-lag between speech and subtitles, which is a limitation of the current live subtitling broadcast process and the current online repurposing process, is reduced as much as reasonably possible to improve the experience of watching live subtitles online

- Colour - improving the iPlayer's media player so it can display the colours currently used in broadcast subtitles to indicate different speakers

- Inclusion of subtitles for more regional BBC programmes

- Inclusion of subtitles for live programmes from BBC News and BBC Parliament channels

- Inclusion of subtitles on BBC channels simulcast on bbc.co.uk

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the much greater amount of programmes with subtitles we now have available.

Jonathan Hassell is Head of Audience Experience & Usability.



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