That ABC Iview Screwup Was Hilarious, But It’s Also Part Of A Way More Serious Problem

Some people with hearing or vision impairments are turning off the ABC completely.

Earlier this week, I tweeted some images of Paul Barry hosting Media Watch overlaid with the closed captions of Louis Theroux’s Twilight of the Porn Stars. They were screenshots taken directly from ABC iview after some kind of unfortunate glitch or error, but the ABC’s first response was to dismiss these images as “fake”.

Putting aside the facts I am neither funny enough nor adept enough at Photoshop to have doctored the images, the ABC’s initial response was concerning. The mix-up — a mismatch of video and captions — is actually one which occurs regularly on iview for those using the closed captioning services.

It’s typically an easy fix; by refreshing the page once or twice the right file is pulled up, and there’s no need to file a complaint. But the ABC’s dismissal implied that no one involved in putting out the initial response was aware of issues like this being a regular problem.

This time it was funny. The image of award-winning journalist Paul Barry very seriously talking about having sex on camera is a bit of a joke. But the larger issue, of accessibility and inclusivity in Australian TV, is actually far more serious.

The Voices Not Being Heard

For Sia Duff, a photographer from Adelaide who has had a cochlear implant since 1991, unreliable captioning is a regular part of her life.

“Syncing on iview can be so terrible sometimes,” she says. “I’m forever emailing them about messed up syncs. Even if it’s a second or two off, it’s still annoying.” While she acknowledges it’s “impressive” how quickly captions can be added to live television such as news or panel shows, she says these live captions “are pretty much guaranteed [to be an] unintelligible mess.”

“I don’t bother using captions for the news,” she says.

One of the benefits of a service like iview — designed as a catch-up platform which hosts shows after their initial broadcast — could be to edit and re-sync the captions on live shows. But this doesn’t happen, and so mistakes and lags are carried on through.

Another issue with iview Duff raises is that there is no simple way to make a complaint about issues with captioning. This has led to her turning towards commercial services like Netflix.

“Netflix had one episode of Paranoid that was out of sync,” she says, “and [they] have this awesome menu that lets you alert them immediately as you watch the show, without tracking down contacts. It’s incredible and everyone should do it.”

But while closed captioning on iview can be glitchy, the thing the platform truly fails at in terms of accessibility is providing audio-description for Australians who are blind and vision-impaired. The ABC trialled audio-description services — which use a voiceover in-between dialogue to explain what is visually happening on screen — over 13 weeks on ABC1 in 2012, and over 15 months on iview until June 2016. Since the end of that trial, no shows on any ABC platforms have been audio-described.

Emma Bennison, the newly appointed Executive Officer of Blind Citizens Australia, calls the audio-description situation on iview “just appalling”. To have the service taken away after the trial, she says, “is almost cruel, because we now know exactly what we’re missing”.

“I don’t really understand what the impediment is to the ABC continuing with it,” she says. “I think that they would cite funding as being the issue, but they claim to be supportive of diverse communities and wanting to build diverse audiences, so I don’t really see that as being a reasonable explanation.”

Speaking to Junkee, an ABC spokesperson noted “the final report on the government-funded audio-description iview trial was delivered to the Department of Communications in late 2016. Its publication is a matter for the Department.

“The ABC has no current plans to introduce audio-description services. Any questions on the future of AD is a policy issue and should be directed to government.”

Like Duff, Bennision is choosing to move away from iview and onto commercial platforms. “I’m watching more and more Netflix content because they do have a very strong commitment to audio-description,” she says.

“But the challenge, of course, is that I can’t get a lot of Australian audio-described content. And one of the frustrations that I have — and I know that many blind and vision impaired people have — is a lot of Australian content is actually audio-described for the UK market, for example, but we never see it here. So, that to me is just completely unacceptable.”

Let’s Make The Change!

Providing accessible options to people with a disability is important for so many reasons, and this onus is particularly heavy on a national broadcaster like the ABC. Full access to television and films means people with visual and hearing disabilities can engage more fully with Australian news, culture, and conversation — and the culture of the world at large.

These services need to be easily accessible and supported, so the biggest number of Australians can feel comfortable in using these services. “I think I was in my late teens when I finally got over [the stigma of needing captions] and realised how much easier life was using subtitles”, says Duff. “Especially when I went back to re-watch Buffy. It was like I’d hit refresh and was watching a totally new show.”

Dismissing a tweet about issues with the service as simply fake, when the much more likely explanation is that those issues are real, is a sign in how far we have to go in making accessibility standard, supported and visible.

But for now, at least, there is a small win. Following my tweet, and after a review of the iview captions and the iview website, an ABC spokesperson said “we pinpointed the issue to a bug on the iview website homepage which resulted in captions belonging to another program appearing over the top of Media Watch. Our technicians are now working on a fix.”

Jane Howard is an arts journalist and critic working throughout Australia and in the UK with a focus on performance.