Audio Description, Subtitles, Signing

Why are your subtitles sometimes done live?

When a show is live or completed very close to transmission, it is not possible to prepare the subtitles in advance. To provide subtitles on live programmes (or on programmes completed very close to transmission), we employ a technique known as broadcast stenography or stenocaptioning.

Stenography is a type of machine-written shorthand based on phonetics, as used to record proceedings in courts and for parliamentary committees. Our stenographers employ the same technique, with the difference that the shorthand outline is translated by computer and transmitted instantly to air. Our stenographers are very experienced, but when writing previously unseen material at speeds of up to 240 words per minute, some mistakes are inevitable. They may occur because a word may come up that has not been fed into the stenographer’s dictionary, in which case the computer will supply a "phonetic" translation.

Sometimes the speed at which they work makes it inevitable that a finger will be in the wrong place, and a simple word will translate as something completely different. Mistakes may in fact represent only one finger error or “typo”. We also use speech recognition technology to provide live subtitling. A speech subtitler listens to the commentary and "re-speaks" it into software which recognises the speech and translates it into subtitles. Speech recognition produces a different range of errors to stenography as the software attempts to "make sense" of the sounds it hears, so instead of seeing phonetic translations, words may appear out of context.

The average person speaks over 240 words a minute and although this is fine for the average listener, it is much too fast for anyone reading subtitles, especially with a picture to watch at the same time. Subtitlers, therefore, have to reduce the number of words that are said so that the subtitles can be read in the time it takes the speaker to say them. They must also synchronise the subtitles with the soundtrack and make it clear who is saying what. In order to achieve all of this, it is sometimes necessary to edit the soundtrack and careful yet quick decisions have to be made about how best to do this.

With all this in mind, a small delay between the words spoken on screen and the subtitles appearing is inevitable. We aim to keep this delay as short as possible, but it is often more noticeable on an unscripted programme such as Big Brother where often several people are talking at once. Subtitles on live programmes are therefore not precisely synchronised with the soundtrack, as you may expect in pre-recorded programmes. Our live team constantly work towards eliminating errors and consistently achieve extremely accurate results across a wide range of programmes. However, live programming presents some of the biggest challenges to live subtitlers and some mistakes are unfortunately inevitable.

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