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Media Services Overview 2023

1. Viewer complaints

1.1 Illegible on-screen text

In 2023, illegible fonts and inadequate colour contrast in on-screen text continued to impact the accessibility of TV programmes. Throughout the year, numerous issues were brought to our attention and relayed to the broadcasters. These issues affected various aspects, including information-based graphics. Notably, there was an abundance of unspoken informational text displayed on screens, often in white against light pale backgrounds, proving challenging for both sighted viewers and those with vision impairments. Similar issues arose with text messages integrated into films and dramas, as well as burnt-in subtitles for foreign language content.

If a program is audio-described, this information is included in the description track. However, many programs are not audio-described, and addressing issues such as illegible text on screen at the production stage can eliminate the need for additional description.

1.2 Provision of audio description on Video on Demand services

The provision of audio description on video-on-demand (VOD) services remained inconsistent this year. Public service broadcasters, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5, ramped up the provision to improve accessibility. Conversely, providers such as Sky, Paramount+, and Discovery+ failed to make their VOD services accessible for viewers relying on audio description.

Sky, part of the American network Comcast, was unable to extend accessibility from its parent company to its UK viewers. Similarly, Paramount+, which delivers audio description in the US, failed to make its service accessible to UK viewers for the second consecutive year.

Recent developments in the media bill, requiring access services on VOD services, are expected to expedite the introduction of audio description on these platforms.

On the navigation front, while there have been notable improvements, such as on the ITVX apps, accessibility for screen reader users remained a challenge across most services on various platforms. Most VOD apps still do not function seamlessly with native screen readers on different viewing platforms.

1.3 Foreign language soundbites

Foreign language soundbites in news and documentaries continued to pose an issue. However, viewers reported significant improvements in BBC News, where foreign language soundbites are now dubbed into English, enhancing accessibility for viewers with vision impairments.

2. Content and platforms

2.1 Audio description on live programs and creative ways to make content accessible

In 2023, there was exciting progress in live audio description. In May, the BBC produced an inclusive commentary for the live broadcast of the King’s Coronation, accessible through the red button. Consultation with blind and partially sighted people shaped the information included in the descriptions, with largely positive feedback. ITV simultaneously broadcasted live audio description of the coronation, breaking through the tremendous challenge of delivering audio description on live programming on UK television and providing a blueprint for others to follow.

BBC followed up later in the year with an accessible commentary on The Festival of Remembrance and The Cenotaph.

BBC’s flagship autumn 2023 series, Strictly Come Dancing, also received an accessibility boost with live descriptions of dance routines available on TV and iPlayer, allowing blind and partially sighted viewers to enjoy the programme in real time and participate in the buzz around Strictly on social media.

Creative approaches were adopted for the massive reality hits, Love Island and Big Brother, by ITV. Participants described themselves in short videos released ahead of the shows, aiming to familiarise blind and partially sighted viewers with participants. Banijay UK committed to making all social media content for Big Brother accessible for screen reader users, marking a shift towards diverse approaches to accessibility.

In another development, BBC dropped over 800 episodes of Doctor Who on BBC iPlayer as part of its 60th-anniversary celebrations, with audio description available for all episodes.

Sky enhanced its accessibility provisions by launching an 'Audio Description Introduction Page' on its accessibility website, providing both text and audio introductions for new series and movies commissioned by Sky. The broadcaster also improved their sports channels accessibility by providing audio description for three live cricket events over the summer, with plans to continue providing audio description on other high-profile live sports and current affairs programs.

The BBC decided not to air a festive edition of University Challenge after contestants complained about the accessibility while filming. A contestant with sight loss who required audio description and a contestant who required subtitles said that the access services weren’t available. BBC and the show’s Production Company, Lifted Entertainment, have reached out to the contestants who have offered to make future productions accessible. The incident demonstrated the need for ensuring that broadcasters’ commissioning and production guidelines refer to accessibility and the importance of access features.

2.1 Stars, premieres, and the red carpet

Netflix continued its commitment to social inclusion in the new series "All The Light We Cannot See," where the blind protagonist, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is played by blind actor Aria Mia Loberti, with audio description narrated by blind audio describer Fern Lulham. Premieres of the series across the world included open audio description.

Sue Perkins gained headlines for reading the audio description for the summer hit Dungeons and Dragons, emphasising the importance of making films accessible to all viewers on social media.

Disney UK continued its push to add audio description to all theatrical trailers, now also available online.

2.2 Quality of experience

On the audio front, Apple remained the only service to provide high-quality audio description in Dolby Atmos, ensuring a full Dolby Atmos experience for audio description users. Amazon Prime upgraded its provision by introducing dialogue enhancement, increasing the volume of speech while decreasing other sounds, aiding those with hearing difficulties who cannot use subtitles due to sight loss.

2.3 Accessibility of TV adverts

The Global Accessible TV Ads Alliance celebrated its one-year milestone, with prominent brands like P&G, Unilever, Mastercard, and Diageo continuing efforts to enhance the accessibility of ads for viewers with sight loss, including subtitles and audio description on linear and online channels. Collaboratively, P&G and RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind) conducted a research study on blind and partially sighted consumers' perspectives on TV advertising, highlighting the importance of enhanced audio/ audio description and an accessible user interface.

ClearCast, with RNIB and RNID, conducted a training session to educate brands interested in enhancing the accessibility of their advertisements.

With most linear channels in the UK now capable of delivering audio description on adverts, it is up to the advertisers to ensure that their content is accessible at the time of delivery. However, the online platforms still lag behind with most not capable of hosting multiple audio tracks for videos. This means advertisers still need to upload different versions of their ads if they have an audio described version.

YouTube introduced multiple audio tracks for content creators to add audio description, primarily in the US, with no confirmed UK rollout date yet. Meta is also expected to introduce multiple audio tracks on its platforms, raising hopes for increased audio description on adverts on its platform in the coming year.

3. Research

This year, RNIB conducted several research projects on media accessibility, covering topics such as the accessibility of adverts, sports broadcasts, cinema experiences, and musical content on TV. Interestingly, from the music research, there was a clear demand for music content to be described. Live and pre-recorded music concerts were given a greater priority for having audio description compared to music videos. For concerts, it was highlighted that the descriptions should provide an introduction, not overlap the lyrics and be concise. There was less of a consensus on the best approach for describing music videos, so further research in this area would be beneficial.

Reports from these studies can be requested by emailing [email protected]

4. Legislation/Policy

There has been quite a bit happening in terms of content regulation. The Media Bill was included in the King’s speech, DCMS consulted on whether alternative EPGs should be regulated by Ofcom, Ofcom consulted on what the access service code should look like in the future as well as asking how television is likely to change in the near future and industry partners braced for the effects of the European Accessibility Act.

We spoke about the Media Bill (or Draft Media Bill as it was) in last year's round up. The media bill covers many topics but includes regulations that set access service quotas for VOD services. There is currently no legal requirement for VOD services to carry audio description and although services such as Netflix, Apple TV plus and Disney plus have embraced audio description some others have held out. The Media Bill was included in the King’s Speech, and it seems as though the government is pushing ahead at full speed. Even after it comes into law it will be a few years before services have to fully comply, but it should encourage companies to build in accessibility and will set a deadline for achieving it.

Electronic Program Guides are bundles of signals that include television channels and the information about them. They are usually displayed on televisions as a grid showing what is on when and on which channel. These are regulated by Ofcom, and they are also used to identify which television channels must be regulated. Sometimes internet delivered channels are presented in these grids or through other apps or services on a television. All these other guides and channels are currently unregulated, but the government (specifically DCMS) wants to change this and bring them under Ofcom’s remit. They have published a consultation to hear advice on this and if this shows it is a good idea then the changes can be made quickly. Service providers could have up to 12 years before they need to provide the full level of accessibility, but they should need to start providing audio description after just a few years and we expect many will exceed their quotas as is the case on current linear broadcasts.

Ofcom’s access service code advises broadcasters on how to make their services accessible through subtitles, audio description and sign language. Ofcom are updating it and have been asking advice on what guidance they should be giving to broadcasters on the topic. They have also been asking what the future of television might look like and what needs to be considered over the next 10 years to make sure that it remains robust, safe and accessible.