What Channel 4's ongoing tech issues have meant for the d/Deaf community

·5-min read
Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

For the last 16 days, Channel 4 has become inaccessible to the d/Deaf community because the captions supplied to shows such as Great British Bake off and Married At First Sight have not been functioning. On Saturday 25th September, a fire suppression system was activated at RedBee media, causing multiple system failures, including the ones used to provide captioning for Channel 4. This issue is yet to be resolved.

For the d/Deaf community, watching television shows without any captions is equivalent to a hearing person watching television with no sound: utterly useless. In a statement released on 9th October, Channel 4 has now acknowledged the distress they're causing viewers, saying, "We have always been committed to supporting viewers with hearing or sight impairment very seriously, and realise how frustrating it is that you can’t enjoy your favourite programmes."

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

Digital Spy also received an official statement from Channel 4 the night before that said the following:

"We are very aware of how important these services are to people with sight and hearing impairment and how frustrating this will be for people who use our access services to watch Channel 4. Restoring these services is a priority, and our technical teams are doing everything they can to resolve these issues."

We requested a specific timeline in a follow-up email but Channel 4 have not yet responded at the time of writing.

Many d/Deaf viewers feel they have not had clear or urgent enough communication from the broadcasters involved. Luke, a Deaf viewer and disabled entrepreneur told us, "It makes me feel as though myself and many other Deaf people aren’t important… there has been no reassurance on how long this issue will go on for."

Disabled activists and community members have made formal complaints to OFCOM regarding the lack of accessibility as a breach of the OFCOM access rules . A letter sent by Deaf & Disabled People in TV (DDPTV) addresses many issues with the lack of communication so far, pointing out that it is not only the d/Deaf community that use the subtitles.

OFCOM data itself suggests there are 7.5 million subtitle users in the U.K, ranging from those who live with intellectual disabilities, to those who speak English as a second language or use the tools to decipher unfamiliar accents.

Many viewers have suggested that if an ongoing technical issue was affecting the picture quality – such as entire shows being broadcast with blurred images – then the response would be quite different. Audism is the term used to describe the discrimination faced by those who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing. In their treatment of these ongoing issues, Channel 4 can be seen as perpetrators of such acts.

Some television shows on the network have taken matters into their own hands. Friday-night comedy show, The Last Leg, saw host Adam Hills holding up a placard that apologised to viewers for the lack of subtitles, which were missing for the second show in a row. Aisha, a paediatric nurse and Deaf viewer says, "It’s appalling they didn’t have a backup plan. Disabled people are always an afterthought in everything."

OFCOM have now made a statement regarding the missing access services 14 days after the onset of disruption. However, it seems that only verbal pressure is being applied to Channel 4, with no talk of monetary fines for the ongoing issues.

OFCOM rules state Channel 4 must provide subtitles (alongside sign language and audio description provision) for 90% of their broadcasting, so a calculation suggests that C4 could continue to broadcast for 37 days total with missing access provision, and still be within OFCOM’s rules. This potential time period, coupled with the lack of roadmap being provided for viewers, does not give the d/Deaf community confidence that the issues will be restored in a timely manner.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

Channel 4 have assured viewers, via the 9th October statement, that when services are restored, all the previous programs will be available for viewing with the required subtitles. Although this will be useful to those who want to catch up, many Deaf and disabled viewers have rightfully pointed out that they watch popular shows in real time as a way to connect with others in social situations. Missing out on multiple weeks of shows like Great British Bake Off means opportunities to banter and be involved in workplace or social conversations have been lost.

Liam O’Dell, Deaf activist and writer says, "Unfortunately, situations like these are not uncommon for Deaf people, and the lack of communication around inaccessibility can be just as isolating, confusing and distressing as the poor access itself."

Red Bee media, the company contracted by Channel 4 to create the captioning service, have advised watchers they are "working around the clock to fix it", but provided no date for when we can expect the essential services to return. Using their twitter to inform viewers, it appears their backup system in place has also failed. Whether that is because it was never fully tested, or is located in the same place as the original affected system is not clear. However, without an immediate backup resource, it seems they are without a speedy fix.

Most viewers are aware of technical issues, and accept that isolated incidents will occur, but what's most frustrating to D/Deaf viewers is the ongoing lack of urgency and intermittent communication.

Channel 5, another user of Red Bee media’s access services, had a similar subtitle outage, from the same incident. However, Channel 5 are manually adding subtitles themselves, choosing their most popular shows to focus on. Their recent statement acknowledges this isn’t the perfect solution, but does provide some kind of stopgap until Red Bee can resume their access services.

This begs the question, why can’t Channel 4 do the same? The slogan coined by the d/Deaf community is "if it’s not captioned, I’m not watching," but it seems in this case, they are not being given a choice.

Digital Spy will continue to keep readers posted as this story develops.

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