David Blunkett: People with hearing and sight impairments deserve a better TV experience

We’re a major sector of the viewing public, and we have the same rights as everyone else who pays the licence fee, says the Labour MP


Can you make any sense of this? “The Arsenal player has been fouled by a zebra!” Or how about “looking for the prince of chemical and bionicle weapons”?


While you puzzle those out, let me give you a clue: thousands of deaf people are left scratching their heads by riddles like these every day as they struggle with subtitles on TV screens.

And for many more, like me, who have no or poor sight, there’s a similar problem: foreign dramas and documentaries that are broadcast with subtitles but are not available in dubbed versions. It’s incredibly frustrating.

This is a growing problem. We have a rapidly ageing population, and unfortunately, blindness and deafness become more common as we get older. And technology can often create more problems than it solves… like those bits of garbled prose I quoted above. They are transcription errors that popped up in TV subtitles for the hard of hearing. The howler about “the prince of chemical and bionicle weapons” was meant to be “principally chemical and biological weapons”.

But that “zebra” who fouled an Arsenal player would stump anyone. It was actually a misprint for “Evra”, meaning the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra.

There is an increasing tendency for overseas material to be broadcast without being dubbed. That’s difficult enough for French and German programmes, but with the trend for excellent crime and political dramas from Scandinavia, it’s simply impossible for most of us.

I would have loved to enjoy The Killing and Borgen, but both shows were screened on BBC4 with English subtitles and no over-dubbing. I appreciate that many people don’t like dubbed dialogue, but if you’re blind it’s invaluable – you can piece together the storylines simply by listening to what is said.

There is of course audio description, which, where it is offered, is critical to those with poor or no sight following the drama on the screen. Adapting this (using headsets) so as not to interfere with the rest of the family, could provide a solution to the subtitle conundrum.

Broadcasters talk a good deal about equality, but preaching is not enough. In an ageing population, people with hearing and sight impairments are becoming part of the mainstream. It’s no longer about a minority: we’re a major sector of the viewing public, and we have the same rights as everyone else who pays the licence fee.

Today, the way TV executives worship the cult of youth seems to be an unstoppable fetish. It is the trendy, the metropolitan and, yes, the under-40s who determine what we view and what we listen to. But much of the spending power reflects an older age group. The ageing population wields a very powerful incentive: our financial muscle.

Broadcasters will tell us that, although the technology for better subtitles, audio descriptions and voiceover translations might exist, these things cost money and resources are scarce.

Yes, these technologies do cost money – but look at the market. So don’t try to tell us that investment is not possible. We just need a little consideration and forethought. More importantly, we need the commitment and will to achieve a better television experience for everyone. What we certainly don’t need is the absurd vision of a Premier League footballer being fouled by a stray zebra!