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Subtitles need a better spellcheck, says Ofcom

Ofcom wants UK broadcasters to monitor TV subtitles to cut down the number of on-air bloopers. 

The regulator is proposing that broadcasters keep a note of the amount of content that’s produced without subtitles in advance, in order to cut down on mistakes. 

In the world of live TV, where subtitles can’t be pre-prepared, teams of stenographers and palantypists who frantically beaver away at specialist keyboards. According to research from Red Bee Media, cited by Ofcom in its consultation document, these televisual Rick Wakemans type at speeds of up to 200 words per minute, to match the fast-paced delivery of newscasters. 

We found this via a Flickr search for ‘bad subtitles’. Some would argue there’s no typo here.

In a post-Digital Switchover world, there are simply too many programmes for these talented keyboard wizards to keep up with. This has led to the development of a process called ‘respeaking.’ This is a combination of voice recognition software aided by an interpreter listening in on headphones and then breaking down what’s being said on TV into phonemes, individual sound components.

By comparing combinations of phonemes stored in its library, voice recognition software then predicts the next word or phrase and then produces subtitles, in a similar way to how SwiftKey works on Android and BlackBerry 10 phones like the Z10. Respeakers have a small amount of time to correct or edit any mistakes that the software might throw into the mix before the words are broadcast.

This is a job that requires total concentration and quick thinking. Despite the best efforts of skilled respeakers, technical errors such as sound cutting out from the studio or the voice recognition software producing incorrect phrases mean that subtitles often contain errors or are delayed for several seconds, disrupting the flow of characters to your TV screen.

Then there are problems with words that have the same sound – been, bean and two, too, to – which can contribute to some spectacularly wrong sentences. See above for an amusing example. Breaking news stories set in or involving unfamiliar place names can also cause errors. Who remembers the name of the volcano that erupted in 2010? Now imagine typing that repeatedly in the heat of a busy news room. 

A lot of non-live TV will come with prepared subtitles which are more accurate. Where pre-recorded content doesn’t come with subtitles, stenographers, palatypists, and respeakers will be bussed in again.  

Ofcom wants the industry and public to suggest how subtitle creation can be better regulated. Improvements in voice recognition technology will see incremental improvements but the regulator wants a more immediate change.

The deadline for comments is July 26. Ofcom plans to have a statement ready by the end of the year or early 2014. 

Image credit: Flickr user Gwydion M. Williams


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