Ofcom: C4 in subtitle licence breach
June 20, 2022
By Colin Mann
An investigation by broadcast regulator Ofcom has found that public service broadcaster Channel 4 breached the conditions of its broadcast licence following an extended outage of its subtitling, signing and audio description services.
These ‘access services’ are relied on by millions of people to watch and listen to television, including those who are deaf, have hearing loss, are blind or partially sighted.
Ofcom’s investigation found that, as a result of an incident at a broadcast centre run by Red Bee Media, Freesat audiences who rely on subtitles were unable to access Channel 4 programmes fully for nearly two months.
Given this prolonged outage, the Channel 4 service fell short of the statutory requirement to subtitle 90 per cent of its programme hours over 2021 on the Freesat service. Ofcom also found that Channel 4 breached another condition of its licence by failing to communicate effectively with affected audiences about the availability of access services in the weeks following the incident.
Ofcom’s broader review of the broadcast centre incident has highlighted an urgent need for all broadcasters to improve and audit their disaster recovery plans. These must include clear communications plans in case of interruptions to services, which take into account different audiences and their particular needs.
In September 2021, Red Bee Media suffered a catastrophic failure at its West London broadcast centre following a release of fire-suppressant gas. This release caused a loud shockwave that damaged many of the servers beyond repair and required disaster recovery procedures to be activated.
The incident caused significant disruption to several broadcasters’ operations, including their access services. Channel 4 was the worst affected, with an extended outage of its access services on its broadcast channels that began on 25 September 2021 and was not fully resolved until 19 November 2021. Ofcom received around 500 complaints and launched an investigation earlier this year.
Ofcom’s 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.
As a result, Channel 4 fell short of its annual quota to subtitle 90 per cent of programmes on Freesat – achieving only 85.41 per cent – in breach of its licence conditions.
Broadcasters must also make audiences aware of the availability of access services. But Ofcom found serious failings and delays in Channel 4’s communications with affected audiences:
- Channel 4 did not provide any information about the cause of the outage or steps being taken to resolve it for 12 days following the incident;
- On-screen TV guides included inaccurate information about the availability of Channel 4 access services until October 14th 2021;
- 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 October 15th 2021; and
- Channel 4 did not broadcast on-air advice and information about the outage until October 15th 2021, nearly three weeks after the outage began. Audiences who did not have access to Channel 4’s online information would have had no understanding about the scale of the issues or that the company was working to rectify them. Ofcom was particularly concerned about the impact on older, blind, or partially sighted access services users, whose access to online information may be more limited.
Channel 4 must now report to Ofcom by the end of 2022 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 programmes.
Ofcom says it recognises that the incident at Red Bee was unprecedented. It resulted in a lengthy outage to Channel 4’s access services provision and also wider disruption to its general broadcasts on all platforms. A number of other broadcasters were also affected, though to a lesser degree.
Ofcom has also published our findings following a thorough review of the incident and made a number of recommendations that it expects broadcasters to act on, including:
- Broadcasters must improve their disaster recovery plans and processes. Disaster recovery facilities must be specified to carry access services, as well as sound and vision, and be regularly tested under simulated emergency conditions. Technical infrastructure should also be regularly audited to identify any potential vulnerabilities. Staff at all points in the transmission chain must be properly trained to correctly follow the disaster recovery procedures.
- Broadcasters must prepare effective communication plans in case of service interruptions. This includes taking into account the particular needs of the affected audience, and making use, as appropriate, of their own TV channels and not just social media to communicate with them.
Ofcom is reviewing its TV Technical Codes later in 2022 and is considering what changes may be needed to shore up the delivery of access services, to bring them into line with sound and vision.
“When things go wrong, broadcasters must have plans in place to restore important services, but also to let audiences know what they can expect,” stated Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director for Broadcasting. “By failing to do this, Channel 4 let down people who use subtitles, signing or audio description to enjoy programmes.”
“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,” he advised.
In response, Channel 4 said it was “very disappointed” with Ofcom’s decision and would review its findings carefully. “We would like to apologise 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,” it added.