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iPlayer: A Deaf Perspective

iplayer.jpgThe BBC publically launched iPlayer at the end of July. I've been a closed beta tester for since May, so I had the opportunity to try it out and had planned to blog about it before now (RSI has deterred me from blogging). I have some thoughts from a Deaf perspective, first, some background information.

What is iPlayer?

Is basically BBC catch up television, which can be downloaded onto your computer, via iPlayer software. Once downloaded, the programmes usually available for up to 30 days after the programme became available. However after its first viewing you can no longer access this after 7 days.

So talk me through it

Would have done this if I'd blogged about this before its general public release. However, I'm not going to do that now, as you can now find this information online elsewhere. Go to this blog entry if you want the basic screenshots and the rest from a mainstream perspective, and thus no point in wasting time reinventing the wheel.

General Platform Criticisms

For a technology viewpoint, iPlayer is something of a disaster: DRM, will only work in Internet Explorer (for searching programmes), currently locked into Windows although a Mac version is meant to be available by the autumn, etc. There is even a petition to Number 10 on this, and to this end the BBC has responded saying that it will open up to other platforms in future.

From a general observation (no scientific proof here), compared to my hearing friends Deaf people seem to disproportionately use a Mac or Linux. Thus where is their access to iPlayer, and more to the point signed television they were promised (see later comments e.g. See Hear)?

It was thought that iPlayer wasn't available on Windows Vista, and official BBC advice still gives this. However there's some advice on how to run iPlayer on Vista on this blog (do so at your own risk).

There's much more I could say about technical / political aspects here, but you will be able to find this elsewhere online.

Say something positive

I don't dispute that the concept is a good idea, in that you can catch up on television when you feel like it, and have greater flexibility where you watch it. Say for example download a programme, then watch it on the train en route somewhere. As long as the quality of the programmes and the access is there (minus the bad DRM / locked in decision), a good investment on the BBC's part. It brings in greater audience numbers, and with this value for money moving away from traditional broadcast medium.

A Deaf Perspective

Deaf wise, here's some thoughts:


The BBC says it will have 100% subtitling output on iPlayer by 2008-09, and to this end some programmes are already subtitled now. In glass half full mode, this is positive, and may this continue. However, should we tolerate waiting, more about that below. Firstly, the mechanics of all this.

Subtitles in standard screen mode

On a standard screen, you can easily turn this on, just at the click of a button, under the picture. Easy enough to operate. The default screen to watch iPlayer is relatively small, with the subtitles appearing underneath. Here's a screenshot:


(There's no television picture in the screen grab as it doesn't pick it up, really annoying and will become apparent when I try to get screen grabs for BSL below).

First, on a postive note, the subtitles appearing on a black background underneath is a good move accessibility wise for Ushers and deafblind. However, some people might have problems with the text and screen size, and possibly might prefer to view in a bigger window. I'm not qualified to give an opinion here, and would love to see comments / feedback from others.

However, for me this screen this iPlayer screen is too small, especially when trying to read subtitles underneath. This kind of defeats what I said above re Ushers, and I'm having issues pretty much with 20/20 vision. My eyes are trained to read subtitles on a screen from a distance, usually on screen. Watching this size, I can't read a font that size and take in what's happening in the picture at the same time, or rather make it a relaxing experience. That's what television is supposed to be about, and small subtitles in a small screen doesn't quite do it for me.

No problems, in theory I can switch to full screen.

Subtitles in full screen mode

Firstly, this is what iPlayer currently has to say about turning these subtitles on:


If subtitles are available for a particular programme, this will be shown on the programme Information page for that programme.

If you're watching programmes using Windows Media format in full screen, subtitles might not appear.

To solve this problem:

* Select Start on your computer, locate and open Windows Media Player.
* Go to the Play drop-down menu and select Captions and Subtitles.
* Select Captions ON.
* Select Tools on the top menu within Windows Media Player.
* Go to Options and select Security Tabs.
* Make sure Show local captions when present box is checked.
* Select Apply button to save the changes.

Following the instructions above will ensure subtitles appear in full-screen.
Subtitles for Windows Media format

You can only view subtitles using Windows Media Player.

The subtitle 'On/Off' options can also be found within your BBC iPlayer Preferences.

The option you choose here will control whether subtitles will be available in the BBC iPlayer playback console.

However, if you don't select the 'On' option for subtitles in Preferences, you will still be able to select them in the playback console.

Those instructions are out of date, and for an older version of Windows Media Player! Not good. This edition did not come out last week, and in fact I installed my current edition of WMP last December. Here's a screen grab:


(Click onto the image for a bigger picture).

The BBC's instructions say:

* Go to the Play drop-down menu and select Captions and Subtitles.
* Select Captions ON.
* Select Tools on the top menu within Windows Media Player.

I can't do this, because those first options are not present! Thus cannot do as I'm instructed to do on the tin. As a bit of a geek I can work my way around the above, but even then had to root around. People need simplicity, especially where English might be an access barrier. There should be instructions for the newer version of WMP:

Now Playing > More Options > Security Tab > click onto Show Local Captions where present

I would do some screen grabs here, just to show you, however again the screen grab doesn't work.

As a closed beta tester, I fed back this information to the BBC iPlayer team, as I thought it was important / could perceive it as an access barrier. I got the standard thank you for your feedback e mail, however it was not actioned. Why does this problem still exist 3 months later?

Local captions now selected on Windows Media Player, lets play!

Hahaha - right now it doesn't work! After all that, I cannot get subtitles to be had in full screen mode. Subtitles exist in standard screen / cross eyed mode only. So I go back to the instructions above, root around some more and no joy. Absolutely no use to me, and on this very ground I've given up on iPlayer, until someone at Auntie Beeb starts to listen. I've fed back this issue and still waiting for someone at the BBC to enlighten me. This is not good enough.

Navigation: Subtitles and BSL

In addition to subtitles, iPlayer is supposed to be transmitting programmes using BSL (although not yet), a point I will come onto later in this blog entry. I am bringing this up here, as it shares a common ground with subtitling as far as navigation goes.

Apart from the no subtitles point, the biggest issue with subtitling is navigation. "If subtitles are available for a particular programme, this will be shown on the programme Information page for that programme."

The BBC expects me click onto each programme's description to check if it carries subtitles, and this information is not available on the selection screen. Clicking onto descriptions and back is time consuming.

At the time of trialling iPlayer, not many programmes were subtitled, and I gave up trying to find a subtitled programme. Clicked 30, 40 times and got nowhere.

Although this subtitling output has increased, its still not enough. To make my point, I just went to iPlayer and clicked onto random programmes in order to find a subtitled one. It took me six random attempts before I came across a subtitled programme. I don't have time to mess about, shot in the dark approach, to find a needle in a haystack. I want a complete list of subtitled programmes in one place. A subtitling category. Perhaps that marginalises us, however the BBC needs to keep me there not give up through navigation. Just clicking onto random programmes and finding out they are inaccessible simply makes me pissed off.

Since 100% subtitling could be anything up to 2.5 years away, during those two years, are we expected to pay needle in haystack, and play a game "Find the Subtitled Programme". The BBC might as well put up Where's Wally, because that's how annoying it is.

Right now we don't know what the deal will be re: navigation of BSL output (or what the BBC terms as Sign Zone). Will this be available in a category by itself, or will we be expected to navigate through other programmes?

Either categories are needed, or a subtitling icon is displayed next to the programme name / picture, on the first navigation overview.

Why aren't subtitles transferable?

Deafies everywhere are probably asking one question: if subtitles are provided for television programmes, why can't these subtitles be carried over to iPlayer? Why is there a need to wait until 2008-09 for a significant increase in output? Bit like how the BBC too frequently screens repeats on BBC 3 or BBC 4, and no subtitles yet the subtitles appeared on BBC 1 or 2.

If there's some obscure technical problem for lack of subtitles not being able to be carried over to iPlayer, this needs to be communicated to us. As these are the sort of questions we are asking ourselves. Without information, people just get plain frustrated.

British Sign Language (BSL)

The BBC has said that it intends to broadcast programmes from its Sign Zone on iPlayer, in other words target a BSL audience. I blogged about this back in April. Apart from See Hear being available during its closed trial, extensive testing has yet to happen.

BSL on iPlayer is an interesting one, and something I have mixed views about. In principle its a positive move. However it should not be done at the expense of BSL transmission on television, and should be complimentary; not instead of. Somehow I have fears about the BBC taking us down the road of the latter instead of mentality. For example, the moving to See Hear mid week, and not giving people realistic options for viewing. Instead, suggestions to watch iPlayer instead.

The picture quality for iPlayer is not quite as good as mainstream television. Perhaps at a glance you would not pick this up, but you start to when trying to follow BSL you notice it. Particularly the facial expressions, or lack of clarity of these

The last edition of See Hear (broadcast on the 7 July) was available on iPlayer with no subtitles. Not a promising move, especially with iPlayer shipment due out that month. However, it gave me an opportunity to access a programme just using BSL, and just focus access critique for this language. (I had not seen this programme on television).

This particular programme had part been rather creatively pulled together through small screen shots, one box displaying a relay interpreter which I was expected to watch (to follow the BSL).


(Please note that picture with the camera lens relatively close to the laptop screen, this doesn't really illustrate what I am about to say below).

I really had to concentrate, not because of my BSL receptive skills. The quality of the picture was blurred enough, and became more apparent for a picture that size. I found myself becoming a bit cross eyed in the process, and ignoring the box next to the interpreter or Deaf person, as I had to focus on what was being said. TV is supposed to be a relatively relaxing experience, and this was not.

I've seen such a set up being used on television before for BSL output, however it wasn't nearly as frustrating, and this could be for a number of reasons. Quality of the picture, the size of the television (in comparison to a laptop), distance you are placed between the screen (laptop or a computer tends to be placed much nearer). I'm no researcher into how people pick up such content, however I do know one thing: it was not pleasant.

See Hear, take note

From September, See Hear will be broadcast in the middle of the week at lunchtime; a time that is inconvenient when many Deaf people are in work or studying. The BBC is now suggesting that Deaf people catch up with the programme via iPlayer. I have various problems with this, which is outside the scope of this entry, instead I wish to focus on the technical aspects.

See Hear is going to have to either change the way it produces programmes from September, to accommodate BSL access via iPlayer. Having small boxes to watch some BSL on screen however cool and creative it might be, defeats the point of access.

In Vision Interpreters / Sign Zone

One has to ask the same questions about an in-vision interpreter on Sign Zone, in terms of picture quality. Will the quality be good enough for BSL? During the whole trial (pre end of July) I never saw the opportunity to try this out. This is a major failing, and BSL access is put on as an afterthought, or something to be developed later. Trialling BSL via your platform is imperative, should not be added on later.

Take S4C's streaming of signed programmes for example, which I blogged about on Grumpy Old Deafies. A wonderful idea, and ensures that people like myself watch signed programmes. Signed television times are inconvenient to me, and thus why waste a resource you've clearly spent money on. However, right now I can't! The picture is too distorted to follow the in-vision interpreter properly. For a start, the face is a complete blur.

Whilst the picture is insignificantly better with iPlayer, and the BBC's interpreter usually is bigger, will it be enough? My experience watching See Hear makes me ask these questions. Where is the BSL consultation, and more to the point was it taken on board?

Setting up iPlayer

Perhaps a strange thing to add onto the end of this entry, but some mention needs to be made of setting up iPlayer. If the BBC intends to make available BSL programmes in this manner, and recognises BSL as a minority language indirectly through production of these programmes then it reasonably follows there is a need for instructions on how to set up iPlayer on the web via BSL.

Currently, people with a good command of English have problems with setting up this platform, what about BSL users? There needs to be clear instructions and information in BSL, if the BBC hopes to utilise iPlayer as a platform for signed output.

In summary, I have one comment to make: BBC start listening a bit better and more to the point implement this feedback.

See also:
BBC & accessible online content
BBC breaking the law in respect of See Hear?
See Hear replies ...
Open Letter re See Hear in Broadcast Now
Save See Hear


Many thanks for the informative review! Sounds rather crap, eh. Oh dear. As a strict Firefox/Opera user, I hate it when I have to use IE to watch videos, never mind watching small subtitles and unclear BSL. I think they need some kind of Deaf consultant to help them along!?

Channel 4's 4oD - http://www.channel4.com/4od/index.html - seems to be going down the same path... a bit worrying considering how TV channels are increasingly relying on the internet, as well as YouTube and its many cousins, of course. It's gonna be impossible to 'regulate' Deaf access to all of this, as we have said before.

Wish subtitles were transferrable though. Could send this URL to BBC Subtitling Dept and ask them to comment?

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