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In the fractured world of on-demand TV, subtitles and audio description can become afterthoughts. But is change on the way?

It is no earth-shattering observation to say that the television landscape has been drastically reshaped by the arrival of on-demand TV. But here’s something you might not know: this fundamental shift has been pretty rocky for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and the blind and partially-sighted.

Did you know that, while the terrestrial channels are legally required to broadcast a minimum proportion of “access services” – that is, subtitles, audio description and visual signing – this obligation doesn’t currently extend to on-demand providers or even to the broadcasters’ own catch-up services?

Did you know that, while many of us are living in an age of “peak TV”, other people are missing out on the TV shows everyone around them is talking about – and it’s leaving them incredibly frustrated?

The situation becomes stark when you look at the numbers. An Ofcom survey of UK on-demand providers, excluding BBC iPlayer and the big international giants like Netflix, recently found that 62% of on-demand providers did not offer any access services whatsoever with their programmes. None at all! Not even subtitles! Only 11% had any audio description on offer, and just 8% had some content with visual signing.

But then, even those streamers which did offer access services weren’t offering it in huge quantities. Here’s another surprising statistic: these accessible services subtitled an average of 26% of programme hours, and across ALL on-demand services surveyed, just 7% of programme hours were subtitled.

In the fragmented world of on-demand, accessibility can be hard to predict. Some services are brilliant, to be sure. And then some are accessible if you watch them, say, on a computer – but completely inaccessible on a mobile or smart TV. Some have subtitles and audio description when they air on “linear TV”, but somehow lose them by the time they make their way to catch-up or into the back catalogue of an international streaming service. It’s perplexing and confusing.

“Streaming is a guessing game,” says Joshua Salisbury, who has moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears. Will the content he wants to watch have subtitles? And if so, will they be the kind of subtitles that make things actually worth watching?

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