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Television Subtitling

Volume 621: debated on Thursday 8 February 2001

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3.16 p.m.

What proposals they have to ensure the comprehensive subtitling of television programmes.

My Lords, on 29th January this year we announced plans to raise the target for the provision of subtitling on digital terrestrial television from 50 to 80 per cent of programming by the 10th anniversary of the start of the service. This matches the target for analogue terrestrial services. We also announced that the digital terrestrial targets for subtitling, sign language and audio description services would be extended to digital cable and digital satellite services when legislative time permits.

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's Answer. Does he agree that we should support the development of subtitling for two reasons: first, for the viewing enhancement of people who are hearing impaired; and, secondly, to provide a stimulus to British industry to be at the forefront of Smart voice recognition technology, which, linked to the ability to view simultaneous translation, is where telecommunications will be heading in the future?

My Lords, as my noble friend says, it is certainly the case that there is a technological spin-off into other fields. It is also right in itself that we should give deaf people access to a much wider variety of television programmes than has been available in the past.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to bring cable and satellite television under the remit of subtitling regulations?

My Lords, the announcement last week was precisely to the effect that we are doing what we can by order. For digital terrestrial services we shall lay orders to increase the targets for subtitling. As I said in my original Answer, for digital cable and digital satellite services we need primary legislation. I hesitate to suggest that there could be any defect in the Broadcasting Act 1996 passed by the previous government but it appears to be more difficult to apply it to cable and satellite.

My Lords, it costs up to £400 an hour to subtitle television broadcasts. Is that not a reasonable cost to make the service available to all those who want to use it? Does not the Minister agree that there is probably an argument for enforcing this measure under the Disability Discrimination Act?

My Lords, I do not disagree that the cost itself is reasonable, but, of course, there are issues other than cost. There is the matter of the availability of the expertise and the equipment to implement subtitling. There is also the problem with regard to, for example, live programmes or late delivery programmes, of making this provision available at a time when it is relevant to what is being shown on the screen. The question of adherence to the Disability Discrimination Act is an interesting one which would have to be tested.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify why it is thought possible and right for the BBC to reach 100 per cent subtitling by the 10th anniversary of the digital channels' creation but not feasible for the other digital terrestrial broadcasters?

My Lords, the BBC sets its own targets. It has set itself the target of meeting, matching or exceeding the targets set by the Independent Television Commission. The BBC has said that it aims to cover 100 per cent of all broadcasts within 10 years. However, the difficulties for the last few per cent are exactly as I described in my previous answer: live broadcast and late delivery programmes. We applaud the BBC for the efforts it has made.

My Lords, has the Minister made any representations to the BBC concerning the quality of programmes which have been broadcast by BBC television over the past two years? I refer in particular to the relevance and articulation‚ÄĒwith the exception of one or two popular programmes which are very articulate and understandable. Will the Government take account of a growing dissatisfaction among the population generally about the quality of television which we are now condemned to watch?

My Lords, I have two problems with the question. First, it does not appear to me to be relevant to the Question on the Order Paper. Secondly, as has been the case for many years under governments of more than one political complexion, Ministers do not answer in Parliament for the quality of BBC programmes, which under the BBC Charter is the responsibility of the governors of the BBC.