For the hard of hearing, captions on TV are an open and closed case


Streaming services frequently dub foreign-language films and series into English, so it’s important to know that you can also adjust the audio track to its original language and use the subtitles in English (or in one of the generally wide range of other languages on offer).

There are government regulations governing the availability of closed captions. Setting aside for a moment the sometimes impenetrable accents that require translation for everyone, almost 20 per cent of the potential viewing audience in Australia is hearing-impaired. So it makes very good business sense for the various free-to-air and streaming services to ensure that their product is as user-friendly as possible.

Free-to-air channels are generally required to offer captions on everything screened between 6am and midnight and on all news and current affairs shows.

Free-to-air channels are generally required to offer captions on everything screened between 6am and midnight and on all news and current affairs shows.

Under the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992, free-to-air channels are generally required by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to offer captions on everything screened between 6am and midnight and on all news and current affairs shows. The exceptions are community TV, all-music programs and material not in English. And the networks’ multichannels are required to caption any programs that have already been screened with captions on any of their channels.

However, at the moment, there are limited regulations regarding the streaming services’ provision of closed captions. They’re also complicated to the point of incomprehensibility. And there are loopholes. For example, Netflix’s riveting Nobel, made in Norway, is primarily in Norwegian with English subtitles provided. However, the characters also speak in English from time to time, and there are no closed captions to help out there. Nor do the regulations require them for English-language segments in any foreign films or drama series.

ACMA’s goal for the streamers is to have everything captioned, eventually. In the meantime, the various services are required to adhere to annual targets, increasing by 5 per cent each year until they reach 100 per cent and in response to complaints from the public (which can be made at acma.gov.au/complain-about-captioning-tv).

If a service fails to comply with the regulations, it’s first given a warning, then fines are applied (to a maximum of $444,000). Following that, its broadcast licence can be suspended.

But who takes responsibility when all the episodes of White House Farm on BBC First (now on Foxtel on Demand) come with captions, except for the second? Or when all the episodes of Perry Mason on Showcase (now on Foxtel on Demand) come with captions, until you get to episode four? For anyone who relies on the closed captioning, this can be a most frustrating letdown. Many English-language films on SBS’s World Movies channel screen without closed captions.

The quality of captioning varies. On anything that goes to air live, it’ll almost always be out of sync, at least a few seconds behind what’s being said on-screen. Which is perfectly understandable given that, in these kinds of situations, the captioners have to fly by the seat of their pants.

The language-mangling can be inadvertently hilarious and very instructive. There is, for example, no such word in the English language as “oi”, whatever the captioner (or the captioning machine) might try to tell us.

Pre-recorded shows make it easier for captioners, allowing them time to do their work and to ensure precise synchronisation between what’s being said and the captions that appear on screen.

There are many options for accessing closed captions, depending upon the type of TV and remote you’re using.

If you get stuck, you could turn to the government’s Media Access Australia website at mediaaccess.org.au for help. Troubleshooting and FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) can be helpful.

Or you could contact the retailer of your equipment. If you decide to do this, it’s advisable to make a visit in person so he/she can show you exactly what to do. It’s all part of the service. Or should be.

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