RNIB welcomes the recent recommendations from the media regulator Ofcom for the introduction of minimum standards for access services for catch up TV and other on-demand viewing (also known as ODPS* or VOD**).
Following input from RNIB and others to two public consultations (in 2018 and 2020), Ofcom has now made final recommendations on how regulation of on-demand services would work. Government should now act swiftly to introduce these minimum standards using its powers under the Digital Economy Act 2017.
The recommendations (if made law as drafted by Ofcom) would require at least 80 per cent of on demand content to have subtitles available, 10 per cent to have audio description (AD), and 5 per cent to have signing. Exemptions on grounds such as company size, affordability, technical difficulty, and extent of audiences would apply. Targets would be phased in over a four-year period.
Video on demand services have become increasingly popular. We urgently need the government to take action and ensure that blind and partially sighted people have access to the same programmes as their sighted peers.
However, the provision of access services is only a partial solution. The apps and platforms through which these are delivered (such as smart TVs, mobile operating systems, pay TV platforms and others) also need to be accessible.
We are disappointed that Ofcom's only recommendation on this is for ODPS to make "reasonable endeavours" to make their content accessible across platforms and apps. We are concerned about how exemptions on grounds of technical difficulty will be applied in practice where ODPS have made "reasonable endeavours". We said ODPS apps and platforms run by ODPS providers should be required to be accessible for people with sight loss, and those providing apps and platforms should share responsibility for this with ODPS providers. However, Ofcom did not include these recommendations. It said that the Digital Economy Act only gives government power to regulate ODPS providers and not those who provide the platforms or create the original content. It also did not agree with us that the platform owners share responsibilities for the accessibility of the service under existing equality legislation.
We think implementation of Ofcom's recommendations will be an improvement on the current situation where there are no minimum standards for access services on on-demand services. However, inaccessible platforms could continue to prevent people with sight loss having the same choice as everyone else about what they watch or participate in, and when and how. Also, whilst we appreciate both the need for proportionate regulation and the complexities of regulating ODPS, we think the targets for audio description are too low and the timescale for implementation is too long.
We look forward to working with Ofcom, the government, and other parties on what else is needed to make on-demand services accessible. This includes, amongst other things, work on the On Demand Code and best practice guidance for how the regulations and exemptions would be applied, and ongoing work with ODPS providers, equipment manufacturers, platform content providers and those with sight loss to find solutions.
RNIB and other disability charities have worked hard since before the passing of the Communications Act in 2003 to influence government and providers on accessibility of media services. Many broadcasters now exceed their targets for access services, and public service broadcasters currently exceed even the higher voluntary targets. However, there is still a long way to go, and we regularly hear from people with sight loss who are still unable to access the content they want to view. People with sight loss must not lose out as viewing habits change and broadcast services are increasingly restructured around an assumption that everyone has access to catch up services and a range of online platforms.
* ODPS: On-demand programme service providers
** VOD: Video on-demand services
Write to us at [email protected] if you would like to talk to us about audio description or accessible broadcasting.