Digital exclusion

There is a need to improve access to on-demand audiovisual services for people with sensory loss.

Audio description, subtitles and signing play an important part in the lives of people with disabilities relating to sight and/or hearing. Too many people are being excluded from new ways of watching TV. Access to these services should be open to everyone. We should all be able to benefit from the digital revolution. The government and service providers have a responsibility to look at ways to ensure everyone can access video on-demand (VOD) services.

The government has been working with the regulatory authority to increase the levels of subtitle and audio-description provision for on demand content. Until this year, VOD services were regulated jointly by Ofcom and the Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD). However, this regulatory function is now carried out solely by Ofcom. The government stated last year that it expected the industry to have met minimum standards by mid-2016. The Government also promised to consider legislation if significant progress is not made voluntarily by the industry to improve access for VOD services.

The government stated in July 2015 that it would decide its next steps based on ATVOD’s 2015 ‘Provision of Video on Demand Access Services’ report. This report was published in December 2015 and concluded that, although accessible programming can be found on an increasing range of devices, there continue to be large gaps in service provision and VOD content is nowhere near as accessible as broadcast TV. Organisations such as Action on Hearing Loss have renewed their call for legislation to be introduced to require subtitles, signing and audio description to be provided on video-on-demand services through the Digital Economy Bill.

The government introduced the Digital Economy Bill in the House of Commons on July 5. However, the Bill does not currently include provisions for requiring subtitles, signing and audio description to be provided on video-on-demand services. The date for the Bill’s second reading debate has not yet been announced but I will follow the progress of this Bill closely and  will hold the government to account on how it plans to improve digital exclusion, both within the scope of this Bill and more widely.

The government has confirmed that Ofcom is currently reviewing how to improve the provision of access services on video on demand services. I hope that the government will listen to the concerns that continue to be raised by organisations such as Action on Hearing Loss and that the government will outline how it proposes to further improve access to VOD services for people who require subtitles, signing and audio description.