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Subtitling Moves Forward at IBC

One of the more curious footnotes from this year’s IBC is that the subtitling business is going through very interesting times at the moment.

In the early days subtitling was easy; translators created the time coded subtitle files in the desired languages, and sent them to the broadcasters, using proprietary software packages. The broadcasters can then transmit them, using a combination of server based file handling and time coded play out, sending them out as either encoded (teletext or DVB bitmaps) or in-vision text. Everything was simple. Or as I used to do with BBC CEEFAX use a manual controller to line up the in vision timecode and then type in subtitles to fit – very manual, but effective nonetheless!

Nowadays everything is different and the subtitle translation companies and the equipment companies are both facing some challenging times and decisions ahead as the subtitle business is changing. The market, from a transmission point of view, is shrinking. Walking around the IBC show, it is evident that most of the big encoder systems suppliers have already included subtitle management and transmission as a feature, often at no charge. You Tube offer closed caption subtitling as a kind of automated service in their free package, though that does benefit from human intervention since electronic voice recognition still doesn’t always get things right. And for our client videos we offer closed captioning as a small extra cost as part of their SEO package.

Things are less clear from the preparation side of things. Translators now don’t need to buy any proprietary subtitling system again as there are plenty of good quality downloadable freeware systems available. More often than not, the freeware systems are better supported than the commercial systems. This is because there are forums and blogs, which means that bugs, upgrades and questions can get resolved in minutes or hours, instead of days or weeks.

There is the question of the legacy of the proprietary file formats, but the many broadcasters “who drive the process” circumvent these problems by specifying the open source file formats, which makes much more sense. Many modern broadcast systems these days must be file-agnostic. It makes more sense for the broadcasters but the subtitle equipment suppliers may not like it.

There are two main things that are going to change the subtitle preparation business for ever. The first is automated translation. At the moment it can’t yet do the initial file preparation and time-coding. It works well for subsequent languages, using the main language as a template. Although it isn’t perfect it’s pretty good and many broadcasters who are under pressure with price and turnaround find it acceptable. The second change is fan subbing. Fan subbing is amateur subbers downloading the content “possibly illegally” and creating a subtitle file from it. The file is then made accessible, usually with no charge, to those who want it.

As imaginable there are many legal issues, such as copyright, that surround fan subbing. Many subtitle translation companies refer to article 2 of the Berne Convention to support their stance that fan subbing is illegal – but is it?

The content isn’t being rebroadcasted in its original state, neither is the soundtrack or the original dialogue – so does the Berne Convention even apply? If it turns out that it does, enforcement, when the process is cross-border and largely virtual, becomes a minefield – legally and practically.

Whatever the niceties are concerning the legal side of it, there are amateur subbers who create and make files available for free. The quality will undoubtedly be variable, but they becoming increasingly good and the better ones are starting to get themselves a reputation. This will never take over the industry, but will inevitably take a big bite out of it.

The equipment and service aspect of the commercial subtitling business are declining. It is still working as a business for the time being, but how long it can remain viable is open to question. One thing remains true and constant, having subtitles and closed captions makes a difference to viewer retention, SEO results and accessibility – especially when so many people are now watching videos without the sound turn up.


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