Centro Comune di Ricerca della Commissione Europea, Istituto per la Protezione e Sicurezza del Cittadino, Progetto VOICE
Media > Televisions >Harmonization > Exploratory Research 2002

Development and harmonisation of subtitling
in European television broadcasting
Television for All
2002 JRC-IPSC Exploratory Research Programme

1) Objectives
2) Background - state of the art
3) European dimension
4) Achievements so far
5) Work to be carried out
6) Possible follow-up actions
A) Annex: work-plan and details of activities

In these first weeks of year 2002, the introduction of the Euro draws the attention of all the citizens, who feel that EU begins to be a reality. Next step of this path towards integration is helping overcoming the language barriers.
A powerful means is subtitling, less expensive and more effective than dubbing. Subtitling of films, at cinema or at TV or on DVD, in the original or other languages, lets the attention on the original source and allows better understanding of words and phrases used in their context. Subtitling of conferences or TV news, even only in the original language, helps in getting larger pieces of information.

These aspects are of the greatest importance for all the EU citizens and are vital for those with hearing impairment. The disability approach, on which the VOICE Project funded by DG-INFSO was based, was chosen in 2001 also for the Exploratory Research Project Development and harmonisation of subtitling in European television broadcasting, in view of collaboration with DG-EMPL in preparing the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003. Also DG-ENTR joined the proposal, with CEN/CENELEC, for a deeper overview and possible standardisation.
Both DG-EMPL and DG-ENTR look for IPSC collaboration on this project and DG-INFSO is also asking us to extend it to other forms of disabilities as well as to design for all approach. Even if all are convinced that the problem is more organisational and political than technical, all agree that technical solutions and harmonisation of approaches are the basis for future steps.

1) Objectives

The research proposes the development and the harmonisation of new multimedia applications for television broadcasters and DVD producers. More particularly, it will underline the importance of subtitling and suggest solutions that may help in increasing its use. Different actions will be taken in order to overcome a lack of information. In the first half of 2002, meetings with DG-ENTR, CEN/CENELEC and the European Broadcasting Union will prepare the floor for a Conference in Spain in June with all the European broadcasters. In the second half of 2002, the results of the Conference will be spread, while preparing with DG-EMPL the activities for the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003. Our role will concentrate on the technical aspects, in finding user needs and shortcomings of present systems and translating them into technical specifications.

The experience gained by the VOICE Project, the contacts and collaboration established with the European broadcasters, the workshops and meetings organised in some European countries and in Canada, confirmed the need of harmonisation in this area. Experiences started earlier, thanks also to groups lobbying and Government's help, obliged the Canadian broadcasters to define and follow common rules and extend subtitles to a target of 100% of the broadcasts. Also BBC and other television broadcasters are increasing their target's rate.

The aim of the proposed project will be to facilitate the access to information, offering citizens additional means to participate fully in the Information Society and improving the quality of life. The multilingual and supra-national aspects of such objectives correspond to JRC's role. Regular contacts with the broadcasters will also provide JRC with opportunities for spreading information on its activities.

2) Background - State of the Art

Speech is the most important, most complex and most human tool for communication and interaction. We build our understanding of the world and of each other on verbal language based interaction and communication. The Information Society is a fundamental theme for UE and the access to television, multimedia and the Internet should be facilitated for all users, by overcoming, at some extent, the language knowledge difficulties.

Subtitling is one of the most powerful learning and training tools of any language. By reinforcing what is being learnt by hearing, it offers a unique opportunity to enrich the vocabulary, getting familiar with words used in their context. For many citizens this applies for a second language, while for others it even applies for the first language. Subtitling is beneficial for the hearing people and for people with hearing impairment, at least for the large percentage of them non using sing language.

The number of people with hearing impairment is between 1% and 5% of the population (according to the degree of the hearing loss), which represents millions of people in Europe. Moreover, an important lack of communication also affects the disadvantaged, the people living in foreign environments and the elderly. When united this group consists of more than 30% of the total population.

Analogic and digital television, digital radio and communication via the Internet, as well as video-cassettes, CD-ROM and DVD, have an enormous potential for spreading information, news, amusement, self training, distance learning, tele-working. The impact of these means would be even greater if the multilingual aspects could be overcome by subtitling. (How easier would it be to follow a lesson or the news, if subtitled at least in the speaker's original language!)

One of the difficulties encountered by the producers is a lack of standardisation of subtitling and captioning and a limited knowledge of the final users' needs. Different national rules limit collaboration and files exchanging. Identical or similar formats and a common approach would contribute reducing the subtitles' translating costs and improving the quality. The final users would more easily switch between different channels, all presenting the same subtitling colours coding, positions and permanence time on the screen. The same aspects concern also CD-ROM and DVD, with additional possibilities of active learning and easier updating of lessons. (A list of some technical aspects is presented in the Annexe).

3) European dimension

4) Achievements so far

The VOICE Exploratory Research Project was followed by an Accompanying Measure, funded by DG-INFSO, giving ISIS the task of developing awareness among users, systems producers and services providers. We organised and presented VOICE at a large number of international workshops and congresses to approximately 6000 participants. The prototype demonstrator has been used for live subtitling the speeches, this being an important means of validation on the field. Workshops and meetings demonstrated the possibilities of the system to several European broadcasters, some of which broadcast information on the project. RAI started subtitling the evening news as an answer to the hearing impaired users' requests, supported also by means of the project. Contacts in Montreal provided additional valuable information, as the role of the Regroupement Québecquois pour le Sous-Titrage (RQST) and their political influence and lobbying.

The proposal for the Exploratory Research Project Development and harmonisation of subtitling in European television broadcasting was accepted in June 2001 and the funding was made available in October. Nevertheless the main steps foreseen for the first year have been reached in a shorter period (even if they have to be consolidated and extended):

5) Work to be carried out (Ref. also to the Work-plan in the Annexe)

6) Possible follow-up actions

A) ANNEXE: work-plan and details of activities

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