Channel 4 Found in Breach of Subtitle Regulations by U.K. Media Regulator

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U.K. media regulator Ofcom has found broadcaster Channel 4 in breach of regulations over a subtitle outage that occurred in 2021.

In Sept. 2021, as a result of an incident at a broadcast centre run by Red Bee Media, Freesat audiences who rely on subtitles were unable to fully access Channel 4 programs for nearly two months. This resulted in Channel 4 falling short of its annual quota to subtitle 90% of programs on Freesat, achieving only 85.41%, which is in breach of its licence conditions.

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Ofcom received around 500 complaints and launched an investigation earlier this year.

“Given this prolonged outage, the Channel 4 service fell short of the statutory requirement to subtitle 90% of its programme hours over 2021 on the Freesat service,” Ofcom said in a statement. “Ofcom also found that Channel 4 breached another condition of its licence by failing to effectively communicate with affected audiences about the availability of access services in the weeks following the incident.”

Ofcom found “serious failings and delays” in Channel 4’s communications with affected audiences, saying that “Deaf viewers were likely to be among those most impacted by the outage, but Channel 4 did not provide any information to viewers in British Sign Language until Oct. 15, 2021.”

“Our broader review of the broadcast centre incident found that Channel 4’s ability to respond to the technology failure at Red Bee was not sufficiently resilient, given its back-up subtitling system failed. It took four weeks for subtitles to be restored on Sky, Freeview, Youview and Virgin Media. It was another four weeks before subtitles were restored on Freesat,” the statement added.

Ofcom has issued a two-point requirement for all broadcasters stating – “Broadcasters must improve their disaster recovery plans and processes” and “Broadcasters must prepare effective communication plans in case of service interruptions.”

Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director for broadcasting, said: “When things go wrong, broadcasters must have plans in place to restore important services, but also to let audiences know what they can expect. By failing to do this, Channel 4 let down people who use subtitles, signing or audio description to enjoy programs.

“There are a number of lessons for broadcasters to learn from this incident. We’ve told them they must improve and test their back-up plans and infrastructure to minimise the risk of such a disruptive outage happening again.”

Channel 4 must now report to Ofcom by the end of this year on the steps it has taken to ensure greater resilience of its access services, as well as how it is continuing to improve the accessibility of its broadcast and on-demand programs.

“Channel 4 is very disappointed with Ofcom’s decision and will review its findings carefully,” the broadcaster said in a statement shared with Variety. “We would like to apologize once again to our audiences for the disruption to our access services following the catastrophic incident last September and since then we have implemented a number of new systems and processes to avoid a serious incident in the future.”

The Ofcom decision comes at a time when Channel 4 is facing a privatization threat from the U.K. government.

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