Subtitles: how to get the best service

TV subtitles service

If you need subtitles when you're watching TV, you want them to be fast, accurate and, most essentially, available on whatever you fancy watching.

In this guide, we look at how to find the best subtitle services: from the channels with 100% coverage to the pay TV providers that have got subs sussed.

Channel check

The media regulator, Ofcom, sets standards for channels to achieve in subtitles, signing and audio description (Full code here).

Here's how they were doing at subtitling their content in the first half of 2013.

% of content subtitled Channels
100% BBC4, CBBC, Cbeebies, Channel 4, E4, More 4
99.9% BBC1, 2 & 3, BBC News, Film 4
90 - 98% Sky Movies Thriller, Comedy & Family, Disney Channel & XD
Channel 5, 4Music, ITV1, 2 & 3
80 - 89% Comedy Central, Good Food, ITV4, G.O.L.D, Sky Living, Sky Two, Pick TV
Sky Livingit, Alibi, Disney Junior, Dave, MTV
Sky Movies Premier, Action, Drama/Romance, Sci-fi/Horror, Modern Greats and Showcase
70 - 79% Sky Sports 1, 2, 3, 4 & News, Sky News, Really, Eden, Viva FX, Challenge, CITV
Discovery Channel, Home, 5*, S4C, Sky One, Yesterday, Universal, 5USA, Sky Atlantic
60 - 65% MTV Hits, Watch, Comedy Central, Extra, Nickelodeon
Less Quest (22.3%), Animal Planet (29.3%), ESPN (36.4%)

Note that simulcast shows (the +1 hour and HD channels) have the same levels as their parent channels shown above.

Most channels are actually exceeding their Ofcom subtitling requirement by some distance. For example, the ITV channels are only required to subtitle 70% but do 90%, while Sky Atlantic's target is 10% and the channel has subtitles for about 70% of shows.

All this means that the way you access TV - Freeview, Freesat, Virgin Media cable, Sky, YouView on BT or TalkTalk - shouldn't make any difference to the level of subtitling you receive. It depends on the channels.

However, in practice, subtitles can be slow or unavailable because of poor reception or other technical problems.

We'll look at all these differences, provider by provider, below but first let's address another big problem for subtitles: on demand content.

On demand services

Aside from BBC iPlayer, which subtitles close to 100% of programming, Video on Demand (VOD) services are not covered by Ofcom.

Instead, VOD services from the pay TV providers and elsewhere are regulated by a body called ATVOD which has no legal power to compel providers to provide any access services to on demand content.

That means that a lot of on demand content isn't subtitled.

As with channels, the core terrestrial services do the best job - 4OD has a lot of content subtitled because Channel 4 already have a commitment to 100% subtitles; ITV Player have a good amount, about 70% - but as you move further into paid content less subtitles are available.

BT

Subtitles aren't yet available for on demand - BT say they're "working on it" - except where the third party makes them available.

Turn subtitles on for one program, where they're available, by pressing your BT remote's 'i' button, scrolling to subtitle language and choosing from the available list.

You can also put subtitles on permanently so they'll show up whenever they're available: go to Settings, then General Settings, then select the right subtitle language and save.

Sky

With most Sky+HD boxes press 'help' on your remote, scroll to subtitles, use the left and right buttons, then press 'select' to put subtitles on permanently.

On demand on Sky does not provide subtitles and neither does NowTV, a streaming service provided by Sky.

However, Sky provide somewhat better subtitles than their competitors because much of their on demand content allows customers limited access to a premium channel (like Sky Movies) rather than using an online streaming system.

For that reason, Sky circumvent some of the technical problems of on demand content.

Although there are no guarantees, there should be more subtitles with some Sky on demand than with Virgin Media or BT.

Virgin Media

Virgin on demand also relies on providers to supply subtitles - so most content won't be subtitled.

Virgin Media say that technical problems mean that, "providing access services is very complicated - not just for us, but for on demand services from all providers."

However, the Virgin Media TiVo service includes access to Netflix which, see below, has far better subtitle provision than almost all other on demand content providers.

Netflix and Lovefilm

The UK's two biggest independent providers of on demand movies are chalk and cheese when it comes to subtitles.

Lovefilm don't have subtitles on any streaming content. They do have subtitles available on some physical DVDs but this information isn't included on the Lovefilm site alongside other 'back of the box' information, presumably because they may have multiple versions of the same film.

Luckily, there's another simple alternative: Netflix do have subtitles on streaming content.

As of October 2012, 60% of Netflix UK content was subtitled; the company have said they would increase this but have provided no targets or updates as yet.

In the USA, Netflix now provides 90% of content subtitled and under a 2012 court ruling, 100% of content will have to be subtitled by September 2014.

We've reported on Lovefilm's policy on this previously and so have many others including Limping Chicken (here) and Pesky People (here).

Lovefilm have given more or less the same response to all these complaints: that technical difficulties, particularly the time and expense of acquiring the rights to show subtitles, are blocking their way. The Netflix example suggests that the problems aren't insurmountable but, for now, Lovefilm seem unlikely to budge.

Standing up for subtitles

There are a number of campaigns to improve subtitling, and access services generally, in the UK.

Here just three of our favourites:

We also look forward to the 2014 launch of Film14, a new streaming service which will only carry films with subtitles, the project of frustrated streamer and thoroughly nice chap Shaun Sadlier.

Comments

1
18 January 2015
Stephanie McDermid

Hi, Amazon Prime Video (formerly LoveFilm) now carries subtitles on many titles and promises to improve as soon as possible.

11 May 2015
Pepe Byrne

Hi, could you tell me if this is in all formats (PC, PS3 etc.) but this is great news in UK even if it's still miles behind American laws. I wrote to the Goverment asking them to review laws about online film subscription services and got a letter back fobbing me off with how good the UK TV services are with subtitling. It is increasingly frustrating. However Stephanie it is great to find out you have managed to break through somewhere this really is good news, now we just need more company's such as NOW TV to follow suit.

2
14 October 2014
Pepe Byrne

I wonder if anyone reads this, especially a person such as Stephanie McDermid. There is an old analogue TV law stating all channels must provide something like 65% subtitles/narrating for blind. This law is now blatantly out of date and I would love to see a movement formed to bring such ruling to the digital world. After all if the American court can force a 100% law I don't see why the British can't follow suit since over 35% of British citizens are registered deaf/blind and require such services to help in their daily lives.

18 January 2015
Stephanie McDermid

Hi, Pepe there are already subtitling levels set by OFCOM here in the UK - it only applies if a TV channel has a specific level of audience. If you're on facebook or twitter - please have a look at LoveSubtitles and the other orgs mentioned in the piece above. We would love your support. Thanks, Stephanie

3
6 June 2014
Stephanie McDermid

Hi, it was actually my petition that started the ball rolling with LoveFilm. Love Subtitles came on board later (and I was made an admin). Pleased to let you know that Amazon Prime Video (formerly LoveFilm) will begin subtitling it's titles this year. Stephanie McDermid.

4
14 April 2014
omeganut16 .

Useful information - thanks. I have been trying to remind NowTV of the case for full subtitling. I definitely foresee a backlash against those companies who have not invested in subtitling technology at some time in the future. NowTV has not even committed itself to fixing the problem, let alone provide a timetable of how soon we can expect a solution. People are clearly subscribing daily and then unsubscribing when they are surprised to discover this gap in provision.

We need this for.. people in noisy environments... students of languages... the huge and growing numbers of people with hearing loss. "Technical problems" - though I accept they are real - are not going to wash as an excuse the longer this drags on. Companies need to be SELECTING their technology based on what it can provide in this area, not having an after-thought of "Oh subtitles - no they are too tricky for our system".

"On demand" is the way everything is going to go and we need a baseline established - a guarantee of minimum standards - that everyone has to adhere to, so that the many ethical companies do not feel they are financially penalised for making proper quality subtitles available. It is a legal requirement in the US - why should we accept an inferior system in this country! If we fail to get this organised we will marginalise those with hearing difficulties and handicap learners just at the point when technology is able to offer so much for these groups.

18 January 2015
Stephanie McDermid

Hi, I tweeted Now TV just yesterday (9 months after you posted this) and they STILL don't have an update for us! Fed up of reading the 'we're working at it/looking into it' or even worse 'we'll pass on your comment'! We need to ask for clear timescales. (Stephanie)

5
17 December 2013
Jason Rutherford

Thank you for this. I am harassing the suppliers as we speak for more subtitling for on demand services. It's not a hardship for them!

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