I love watching the BBC 1 o'clock news during my lunch break at work. Its an excellent service and one which the beeb has provided for a long time via a its 'Newsplayer' pop-up or, if you are clever enough, via a direct Realplayer stream. They have never promoted it heavily; in fact, I believe I first found the Real stream URL on the Yahoo! News website a number of years ago. For me its the most natural user expectation of the BBC audience i.e. "I want to watch/listen to a program live, but I don't have a TV near me.". BBC Radio has been providing a live internet service for a number of years...but I guess TV is always little bit slower to catch on (heightened copyright and distribution complications).
So its good to see that with the arrival of live streaming embedded flash players, we can now watch the broadcast on a proper page with a bookmarkable permanent URL.Â Brilliant.
However...as I watch this new service the more I wonder why they stream the signed version rather than the full 16:9 experience. They don't do that on BBC One, so why is the internet audience so different? After all, they never had subtitles on the old Realplayer stream...so what's changed? And...why should the majority of the audience be forced to download all this redundant data, at the expense of the full live experience?
Well. As the accessibility department at the BBC will probably tell you; There are around 9 million people in the UK who are either deaf of hard of hearing and the BBC has a duty to provide a service to this audience.
I completely agree that the BBC has a duty to support all audiences- but, to what extent can an interactive proposition be degraded by the the requirements of the minority?
According to the RNID website only 50,000 people in the UK actively use or understand sign-language. This is 0.6% of people with hearing difficulties in the UK (9 million) and 0.08% of the UK population.
Imagine you are at the cinema and the screen is reduced to a quarter size, because 0.6% of the audience uses sign language. Would you see that as an over reaction to the problem? Surely, the cinema has time in its schedule for sign-language-only films specifically catering for this audience. Another problem with using the signed video stream for all audiences is the often understated power of lip reading.
"People with normal vision, hearing and social skills unconsciously use information from the lips and face to aid aural comprehension in everyday conversation, and most fluent speakers of a language are able to speech read to some extent." Wikipedia
I don't think I'm being dramatic when I say that we all use lip reading subconsciously - whether or not you have hearing difficulties. Listening is not simply the reserve of your ears; lips, movement and body language all play an important role in providing the whole picture - but when the lips are confined to a quarter of the screenÂ - it becomes next to useless.
I'm not in any way suggesting that signed programs should be abolished. Quite the reverse in fact. If the Beeb really wants to supports the hard of hearing, it should think more clearly about the requirements. Sign language only solves a problem for the 0.6% of population who understand sign language, but in doing so it also reduces clarity for the other 99.4% of the audience (some of whom also have hearing difficulties). Go figure.