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Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000

CHAIR —I welcome to the table Mr Robert Scott from the Australian Caption Centre and Ms Cathy Clark from the National Working Party on Captioning. The committee has before it submissions Nos 5 and 18, which it has authorised to have published. Do you wish to make any alterations or additions to your submissions?

Mr Scott —No, I do not wish to.

CHAIR —Would you like to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Scott —Yes. I am the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Caption Centre. The Australian Caption Centre is a not-for-profit public benevolent institution which informs the public and industry about captioning in Australia and also runs Australia's largest captioning service—the Supertext service. The Australian Caption Centre's position in the review of captioning quotas that was stated in the Digital Conversion Act 1998 has primarily been to objectively explore the issues of practicability based on our experience of captioning a variety of television programs since our inception in 1982 as well as physically surveying news production facilities and a variety of regional and metropolitan broadcasters and also looking at captioning work that is engaged in overseas. Our conclusions are generally in agreement with the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000; that is, we believe that there is a degree of impracticability in the live captioning of foreign language broadcasts and also that captioning non-vocal music programming may not be necessary—noting that those are the two exemptions for captioning that are in that bill. However, we believe all other programming is able to be captioned, and there are many examples of this captioning of a variety of programming in Australia and overseas currently. Given that the captioning intentions of the legislation were quite clear in the Digital Conversion Act 1998, the Australian Caption Centre began gearing up for the potential resultant increase in business nearly two years ago, and we feel that our efforts are on track to satisfy the requirements of the Australian broadcasting industry next year. I have a few comments on what the preceding person said, but we could deal with those in questions.

CHAIR —Ms Clark, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Clark —I am the Chairperson of the National Working Party on Captioning. The NWPC was really established to provide one voice from both the deaf and the hearing impaired communities and any other person in Australia with a hearing loss. At the moment we have a rep from each state in Australia. That person is a volunteer and acts as a go-between between the NWPC and the community. We also have a variety of organisations that are involved in our meetings: the Australian Association of the Deaf, the Deafness Forum, Better Hearing Australia, the Council on the Ageing, the national parents network, Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People, the Australian Federation of Deaf Societies and the Australian Association of Teachers of the Deaf.

The NWPC was established with three goals: firstly, to have all of the news, current affairs and prime time television programs captioned by 2001; secondly, that all children's programming be captioned by 1 January 2002; and, thirdly—our primary aim— to have total captioning available by 2005. We believe strongly that captioning is a human rights issue. It is a human right. It is an issue of access for deaf and hearing impaired Australians.

There are a few points I would like to make. Firstly, we believe that the announcement made by Senator Alston on 10 May was a very important step forward in the area of captioning in Australia and we very much support that step. Also, we believe that it will put us more in line with what is happening in other countries, such as the United States and the UK, in the provision of captioning to deaf and hearing impaired people. It has really been 2[half ] years since the bill was first introduced to government. The television stations have had 2[half ] years to research and prepare and to suss out what technology is available. So we believe that there should not be any further hiccups or excuses from the television stations. Channel 7 is really a perfect example where 85 per cent of their prime time programs are captioned at the moment, and I watch it all the time. Also they caption live sporting events—the AFL and the Olympics will have captioning. I believe that Channel 7 is the leader and is setting an example that other television stations should follow.

The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, DOCITA, has spent the last 2[half ] years reviewing, researching and collecting information about this issue. We believe that the information is there and the decision has been made to include in the bill the requirement for prime time captioning from 1 January 2001 with those two exemptions of course. We support that and we would like to see that happen as quickly as possible so that the TV stations can start preparing themselves. We really are excited to see that deaf and hearing impaired Australians will receive reasonable access to captioning and we are also excited about the inherent quality that has been included in the bill.

CHAIR —Thank you. One of the points you made quite strongly is that you feel the news services should be captioned. In the submission from WIN, which is a regional television provider, they have referred to a system in the United States called the electronic newsroom as a way of providing a limited amount of captioning to regional viewers, because WIN see some problems in captioning all news. They say that if this technique is adopted in Australian regional markets for local news and current affairs broadcasts, then each bulletin would have the presenter's introduction and journalists' voiceovers captioned, and this method would also provide full captioning of weather and news updates. What is your comment on that proposal, that electronic newsroom services be introduced, as are allowed in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission closed captioning rules?

Mr Scott —It is a way that can put some text up on the screen that represents portions of the news bulletin. I think Cathy would probably be the best person to make a comment on whether that was satisfactory to the viewers or not. One thing we did notice when we were looking at how the news was put together in some of these regional television stations is that in a lot of cases where the news is being put together on a shoestring budget where they have the small staff numbers, which Senator Calvert referred to before, they tend to produce a lot more of the bulletin in advance and they tend to ensure that everything in the bulletin is scripted on a central newsroom computer system. There was one station, in particular, that we looked at in Mount Gambier which was a very small operation and ironically it worked out that captioning a news bulletin like theirs was very inexpensive. I think in one of our submissions to the review we indicated that they could probably do their bulletin for maybe $50,000 a year. That was mainly because it was produced so far in advance and everything was scripted and any national items were on a news service that was coming from major metropolitan networks and would already be captioned. The electronic newsroom system can work in a situation like that if the text files are there for everything that is going to air. If they are not there and you have live interviews or taped items or taped stories from overseas where a script is not available, then there will be no captioning there unless somebody creates it. It might be interesting to hear what Cathy has to say.

CHAIR —WIN does broadcast in Mount Gambier, so you may have in fact been at a WIN station.

Mr Scott —Yes.

Ms Clark —I still stand by my previous point that I believe that all prime time captioning is achievable and I believe that people in the regional areas should not miss out. I know that when the announcement was made by Channel 7 that one of the regional television stations would be captioning their news there was a lot of enthusiasm and support from the community and it made life a lot more accessible for those people in those regional areas. I think the country people are isolated enough, and if you are talking about a deaf or hearing impaired person in the country then they have that double isolation. There is limited services out there anyway in their area. So giving them access to captioning will give them some access to information and understanding of what is happening in the rest of Australia.

Senator MARK BISHOP —To both witnesses: Mr Tayeh advocated an amendment to the bill to extend to pay TV operators the requirement to caption at the same times and to the same degree. What is the view of your organisations of that suggestion?

Ms Clark —The NWPC is keen to see pay TV captioned. A lot of people I know have experienced sales people coming to their door asking if they want to connect to pay TV and people ask: `Are your programs captioned?' There is backward stepping and `Oh, well—no.' That sort of thing happens. A lot of deaf and hearing impaired people do not have access to connecting to pay TV. I would encourage and support pay TV becoming more responsible in the captioning area. I think there needs to be some time frame established. But I would like to see that some inclusion be put into the bill, yes, definitely.

Senator MARK BISHOP —That being the case, what sort of time frame do you advocate?

Ms Clark —I think we have set a goal of full captioning by 2005. I think we could safely include pay TV operations having full captioning within that time period as well.

Mr Scott —I cannot understand the obstinacy of the pay TV industry in not captioning programming. Most of what they show is sourced from the United States or from the UK. It has already been captioned there. They have a high level of repeats throughout the day of their programming. We did an analysis that looked at both of the main companies that will be providing subscription television and the cost of captioning all of their movie channels we estimated could be paid for with the gross revenues from less than 1,500 new subscribers. If you look at that in the light of the old ABS statistics saying that there are 1.7 million people with an acknowledged hearing impairment in Australia and research by the South Australian Health Commission which says that over 30 per cent of those people have teletext TVs and are using them to watch captioning, you will see that that is 600,000 people in Australia and a pay TV provider only has to get revenues from less than 1,500 of those to pay to caption all their movie channels. I do not understand why they do not do it.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Mr Tayeh also made reference to some correspondence from Mr Stokes circa November last year when Mr Stokes alleged that pay TV operators receiving signal from the free to airs were decaptioning material that otherwise would have been captioned. Can you confirm that that has occurred and offer any reason or comment as to why the pay TV operators would have chosen to go down that path?

Mr Scott —Yes. It was not happening right across the board with every pay TV provider. I believe that Optus Vision were successfully retransmitting the caption data. Foxtel were having some problems with some of their services and I believe it was because the Mpeg encoding equipment that they had to digitise the signal was only dealing with the active picture signal; it was not dealing with the vertical blanking interval where the caption data is. Apparently Foxtel have rectified those problems. To my knowledge—and I have not looked into this for several months—there are some Austar services that are not successfully retransmitting the caption data. I noticed in the broadcasting services amendment bill that there is reference—I think it is section 8A, which deals with captioning—making it clear that caption data is part of the television program. We are hoping that having that in the legislation will provide added impetus to the pay TV providers. This is a very important issue.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Can that be interpreted as a mandate to the pay TV operators that when they broadcast they broadcast fully captioned? Is that your interpretation?

Mr Scott —I am not a lawyer. When I read it I think there is sufficient room for interpretation there, for some lawyers to make some money out of interpreting that.

Senator MARK BISHOP —We might ask the department then.

Mr Scott —It is something that is incredibly important though, because there are some deaf or hearing impaired people who live in marginal reception areas in terms of getting free to air signal. If they are able to get the free to air signal on a cable, it is meant to be perfect reception. Again, people would subscribe to pay TV services I think simply so that they could get good reception on the free to air channels and get captioning.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Ms Clark, do you have anything to add to that?

Ms Clark —I would like to support what Robert said, if it is achievable and there are no technical issues about pay TV being given a mandate to improve their captioning quota.

Senator MARK BISHOP —So both of your organisations are comfortable with the time frame of 2005 for full captioning to include the pay TVs and you do not seek amendment to make it mandatory to be earlier than that provision in the bill?

Ms Clark —If we could make it earlier, definitely yes. But I am not an expert in this area. As a deaf person, I would like to see it happen tomorrow.

Senator MARK BISHOP —I understand.

Ms Clark —And then I would probably subscribe. To be fair, giving them a one- or two-year time frame is achievable. But, as Robert said, a lot of the movies come from other countries and they already include the captioning. So it is really a matter of making sure that the Australian programs are aired captioned.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Are you familiar with the table at page 48 of the memorandum to the bill concerning the level of captioning from 1997 to 1999 for the four networks?

Mr Scott —Yes.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Do you have any understanding of why particularly the Nine Network and the Ten Network have been so slow to move on this issue of captioning whereas both the ABC and Channel 7 appear to have been quite active in this area? Is it just a cost issue to those two networks?

Mr Scott —I suppose it is, but I think probably they are the more appropriate people to ask in that regard. I know that the networks have been very cooperative in doing things like working with us to explore importing caption files from overseas. If you go back earlier in the statistics when we first started doing that, you can see that there was quite a significant increase in the amount of captioning that was on TV when we cracked all the problems associated with that. It did plateau a little after that. I think the figures went up with the ABC mainly because the government provided additional funding for captioning their 7 o'clock news bulletins. The Seven Network—I do not know. With the figures that I stated earlier about the number of people who are using the service, maybe they thought there was a ratings point in it, maybe they wanted to do something good for the community. I really do not know.

Senator MARK BISHOP —You have not had any dialogue with the two networks on this issue?

Mr Scott —We have had continual dialogue since 1982, working with them to get them to increase the amounts of captioning that they do. But I suppose the thing that you have to bear in mind about the Australian Caption Centre is that we are not really a lobbying organisation or anything like that. We provide a captioning service to the broadcasting industry and then we also provide information to deaf and hearing impaired consumers and to the industry about what people want and what is available.

Ms Clark —The NWPC is actually quite separate to the Caption Centre and I would like to make that perfectly clear. The Australian Caption Centre provides a captioning service and we observe the quality of the captioning provided by the Australian Caption Centre in the same we do with Channel 7. With Channel 9 and Channel 10 I think cost is definitely there, but in my discussions with Channel 9 and Channel 10 last year Channel 10 did say that they were researching when they realised that they needed to consider the bill that was coming in 2001. So I took heart at that, that there was some commitment to achieve the 2001 deadline. Channel 9 said, `If it happened, we would do it—full stop.' It was only if the legislation was implemented that they would take action, which did concern me because now we have six months to go. They still have not done any research, from my understanding. I would also like to point out that SBS also have a responsibility because they do provide more and more English speaking programs that are not captioned.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Senator CALVERT —Mr Scott, first of all, do you have sufficient resources to fully caption the Olympic Games if you were asked to do so by Channel 7?

Mr Scott —Yes, I think we would.

Senator CALVERT —How do you physically caption live sports? It must be rather difficult.

Mr Scott —Purely live programming like that really needs to be captioned by a stenocaptioner, who is basically like a very highly skilled Hansard reporter who uses a stenographic keyboard. The main difference is that the stenocaptioners have to deliver their transcription in real time and it has to be accurate in real time. They do not get any chance to take it back and fix up little things or anything like that. It is a rare skill. We have started working with a school of court reporters to get some people trained to do this real-time work. I believe the real time company the Seven Network uses in Perth also have taken on some trainees to bolster their numbers. If we were called upon to assist with captioning the Olympic Games, I think it would be great because we are basically in a position now where we are gearing up staff numbers, we are getting people trained up for work that is not going to be switched on until January 2001. To be able to have some additional real-time work that was there for them to do later this year I think we would welcome.

Senator CALVERT —This major event in Australia's history is going worldwide. I just presumed Channel 7 were versed at fully captioning live programs and that a number of people would need to be involved because you have so many different sports happening at the same time. That is why I asked you about the resources and whether they were available. I suppose they would be available on a worldwide basis or on an Australian basis.

Mr Scott —I think for doing the Olympics they would be available on an Australian basis. We also have a program recruiting some stenocaptioners from overseas as well. It is one of those things. It was done in America in Atlanta. They captioned the Olympics in their entirety. You are right that there are a lot of different sports and there are a lot of different competitors. The research associated with getting all those names and understanding is a huge task but it can be done. It is the same sort of work these people do when they are captioning news bulletins or current affairs shows. They have to research the spellings of names and know what the subject matter is. That is what they do for a living.

Senator CALVERT —If Channel 7 were worried about the expense, surely SOCOG would certainly have to think about the fact that if they were going to provide the best games ever captioning would be an important part of it. The number of deaf and hearing impaired people around the world would run into millions, I would think, even though a lot of them might not be English speaking, but I suspect a lot of them would be. It is quite a huge audience.

Mr Scott —Sure. Also, Mr Tayeh mentioned the embarrassment of Australia not being a country that has those sorts of services, given that there are going to be a lot of visitors from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and other countries around the world that are used to that level of captioning service. They will probably expect to see it on the games when they are here in their hotel rooms and that sort of thing.

CHAIR —We are a little behind time. Senator Bourne, do you have any questions?

Senator BOURNE —Yes. But I could put them in writing.

CHAIR —Okay, if you would put them on notice. I thank the witnesses from the Australian Caption Centre and the National Working Party on Captioning for appearing.

[12.16 p.m.]