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New arrangements for signing on some TV channels

Plain English Summary


In this document, we say ‘deaf people’ as a short way of referring to deaf people who can use sign language to watch TV.

Many deaf people use subtitles on TV to understand and enjoy the programmes. But some deaf people can find it difficult to understand subtitles. They use signing to understand television programmes. Some deaf people use both subtitles and signing to understand TV programmes. Sign language uses hand signs and facial expressions to make words and sentences. The Government says that it is a separate language, like English or Welsh.

Most signed programmes have a signer in the corner of the screen. The signer uses British Sign Language to explain what people are saying. We call this ‘sign-interpretation’. At the moment, only a few TV programmes are specially made for deaf people and presented by someone who uses sign language. One example is the BBC’s See Hear programme. We call this kind of signing ‘sign-presentation’. Almost all signed programmes on TV are sign-interpreted. The reason for this is that it is much cheaper to make them, than to make sign-presented programmes.

Earlier this year, Ofcom suggested that some changes be made to the way TV programmes are made for deaf people. Now we have decided what changes to make. This part of the document says what will happen now. If you want to look at all the reasons for these changes, you should look at the detailed statement. You can find this at http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/signing/statement/.

What the law says

Parliament has made a law (the Communications Act 2003) to help deaf people who use sign language. This law says that TV channels should show some programmes with sign language, unless there are special reasons why not.

The law says that, after ten years, 5% of the time on a TV channel must have sign language. But it is up to the people in charge of the TV channel to decide whether signed programmes should be sign-presented or sign-interpreted.

Ofcom is in charge of making sure that TV channels do what the law says. We have made some rules about which channels should show signed programmes. These rules are in the Code on Television Access Services. About 80 channels show some signed programmes on TV. Some of these channels have lots of people watching them, like BBC1 and ITV1. Some channels have very small audiences – these channels each have less than 1% of the total viewing of everybody who watches television. We call these ‘low audience channels’.

Why we think that changes should be made

Last year, we asked researchers to find out how many people could use signing to watch TV, and what they thought about the signed programmes. They found out that about 66,000 people in this country know sign language well enough to use it to watch television.

Some deaf people preferred to watch programmes with subtitling (not all deaf people find subtitling easy to use). Some deaf people complained that signed programmes are shown too late at night.

For these and other reasons, we believe this means that very few sign language users are watching the low audience channels.

We published the research results in March 2006. Then we spoke to deaf groups like the British Deaf Association and the RNID. We also spoke to the people in charge of TV channels. We asked them how to make signing on low audience channels more useful for deaf people.

The deaf groups said that most deaf people would prefer that low audience channels showed programmes specially made for deaf people, where the presenters used sign language. We told them that this would be more expensive than making programmes with a signer in the corner of the screen. So, there would be fewer signed programmes. They said that they would still prefer this to how signing is done now on low audience channels. They said that, if possible, they would like signed programmes to be put on one channel. This would make it easier for deaf people to find signed programmes. They would also like the programmes to be shown at more convenient times.

We also talked to the people in charge of TV channels. They told us that they did not want to make signed programmes especially for deaf people, as many hearing people watched their channels and cannot understand programmes made in sign language.

Some channels said that they might be interested in giving some money to another channel which could make sign-presented programmes for deaf people.

Other channels said that asking channels with very small audiences to show programmes with signing was a waste of money. They didn’t think that many deaf people who use signing would watch those channels. They suggested that TV channels could do a bit more subtitling instead.

What Ofcom proposed

We thought about these ideas, and we also thought about what the law says. The law says that we need to think about different things when deciding what to do. Among the things we have to think about are:

  • what deaf people would need;
  • what it would be reasonable to ask TV channels to do; and
  • whether TV channels do provide what deaf people need.

We also thought about what Parliament was trying to do when it made the law. In addition, we thought about what the researchers found and listened to what deaf groups told us. As a result, we think that we should try to get more programmes presented in sign language, even if this means that there are fewer programmes interpreted into sign language.

But we think that deaf people who can only receive the main channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five) would want signing on those channels to stay as it is so that, whatever happens on low audience channels, they can continue to watch signed programmes.

We also think that we should not ask TV channels to spend more money overall on providing assistance for the deaf (signing, subtitling and audio description) than our rules say they must do at the moment. We also think that any different arrangements shouldn’t mean that TV channels could cut the amount of subtitling they do.

What Ofcom thinks

The law says that, if there are special reasons, Ofcom can excuse TV channels from the normal rules for showing programmes with signing. The law says what these special reasons could be.

For example, Ofcom can decide that the low audience channels do not have to follow the normal rules if very few deaf people actually watch them. In this case, Ofcom can tell the TV channel to do something different on its own channel that would help deaf people more.

We think that there are special reasons why we cannot ask TV channels with low audiences to carry on as now. Very few sign language users are likely to watch TV channels with low audiences. This means that the money that TV channels are spending isn’t helping deaf people. So we think that we should tell TV channels with low audiences not to do signing as they do now.

Instead, we think that they should show some programmes presented in sign-language at least once a month, between 7am and 11pm. These programmes are much more expensive to make than programmes translated into sign language, so we think it would be fair to tell them to show a half an hour of programmes presented in sign language each month, instead of a few hours of sign-interpreted programmes.

However, some broadcasters would like low audience channels to pay towards signed programmes on another TV channel, like the Community Channel, instead of showing sign-presented programmes on their own channels. Deaf groups say that this would be a good idea, because it will make it easier for deaf people to find the programmes. They would also like deaf people to be involved in choosing and making the programmes.

We think that this could be a good idea. There may be other good ideas. We will think about any idea that a TV channel would like to suggest. We can decide to let them do something different if they would like to and if we agree that it is good for deaf people. But we can’t make TV channels do something different on another channel. And we can’t tell TV channels that they must involve deaf people in making signed programmes.

What Ofcom has decided

Ofcom has decided that low audience channels should either:

  1. show 30 minutes of sign-presented programming each month between 7am and 11pm. They must do this from the beginning of 2009. We think that they will need the time before then to prepare properly; or
  2. do different things that would allow deaf people to see more sign-presented programmes, possibly on other channels.

In some cases, it may be better for deaf people if:

  1. a channel with an audience share of just over 1% shows sign-presented programmes instead of sign-interpreted programmes. For example, deaf groups have told us that it is not easy to watch sign-interpreted films or drama programmes;
  2. a channel with an audience share of less than 1% carries on with sign-interpretation. Some deaf people say it is easier to understand programmes with a lot of information (like news programmes) if they are sign-interpreted;
  3. a channel does something different, like paying towards signed programmes on another channel. TV channels may have other good ideas.

If a channel would like to do one of these things, instead of showing sign-presented programmes on its own channel, we shall think about it. The law sets out things that we should look at when deciding whether signing arrangements are sensible. These things include how many deaf people they would help, and how much they would help. We will think about these things. Then we will decide what is best.

On other channels with higher audiences, and all the BBC channels, signing will carry on as it does now. Most people watch these channels most of the time. So, deaf people who can only get the main TV channels will still be able to see the same amount of sign-interpreted programmes. Deaf people who can also get other TV channels will also be able to see more sign-presented programmes.

We have explained the full reasons for these decisions in the other parts of the document.

We will look at how these changes are working in about two years. We will ask deaf groups and broadcasters what they think.

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