Reading the results: Subtitling the General Election

Callum June 26, 2015 0
Reading the results: Subtitling the General Election

Ben Pheazey, Subtitler at Ericsson Broadcast and Media Services, reflects on the challenges involved in conveying the twists and turns of election night TV coverage to hearing impaired audiences…

The first election night with live subtitles was broadcast by the BBC way back on April 9th 1992, some 18 years before Gordon Brown first ‘agreed with Nick’. Back then, live subtitling was almost exclusively the preserve of stenographers based at BBC premises, who had to glean their talking points from reference books, talking to production colleagues and the scripting tool Basys – a forerunner of Associated Press’ industry standard Electronic News Production System.

Fast forward five years to May 1st 1997, and while the political landscape had been transformed to the sounds of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, the art of subtitling remained broadly unchanged. The practice of live respeaking was still some four years away, and internet use had yet to become truly widespread among the general population. Live subtitling was still predominantly left to stenographers, who by this point were using electronic spreadsheets that listed all 650 constituencies with tabs detailing the candidates standing, their track records and relevant BBC regions. Any other background information was typically sourced from video feeds and card indexes, with any assertions they made checked against three sources.

PX RespeakingTaking no chances
As Steven McDevitt, who helped subtitle the 1997 election, recalls, “Because the coverage tended to cut from panel-based discussions to ‘the counts’ coming in for various constituencies, [we could] scan the spreadsheet for the relevant constituency and read the candidates’ names off that, rather than having to take a chance with spelling their names out live…”

Following a 2008 commitment by the BBC to subtitle 100% of its live output (with the sole exception of the BBC Parliament channel), the corporation’s daily national news and regional news bulletins at 1pm, 6pm and 10pm were subititled as a matter of course. As a result, the Broadcast Centre-based Red Bee Media (formerly BBC Broadcast) found itself fulfilling a demand for live subtitling that was now far greater than it had been in 1997.

The 2010 general election campaign additionally saw extended running times given to BBC2’s Newsnight, Daily Politics, The Politics Show and BBC1’s News At Ten, which saw calls for more research and data than ever before – and subtitling methods put to some interesting new uses.

As subtitler Nitole Rahman recalls: “There was such interest around the 2010 leaders’ debates that the BBC asked us to provide transcripts of our subtitles to attach to their politics website. Viewers could type in a word or phrase and be taken instantly to the points in the debate clip where that phrase was said.”

‘Cleggmania’ to ‘Cameronettes’
The speech transcription software of the day still struggled to meet such needs, however. Their standard of voice recognition was good, but not as high as the widely used Dragon NaturallySpeaking software – with the result that subtitlers’ preparatory vocabulary lists were still somewhat dense. Terms like ‘Cleggmania’ couldn’t be easily dealt with in the heat of the moment, unless picked up within the wordlists kept by live assistants. Now it’s possible to create temporary macros live on air, allowing us to take gems such as ‘Milifandom’ or ‘Cameronettes’ comfortably in our stride.

Live election coverage will always remain unpredictable, as demonstrated by 2015’s exit poll and high profile MP departures, but this time round we were better prepared to assist the BBC, Sky and Channel 4 on election night than ever before, thanks to more effective speech recognition, the ability to reuse subtitles and our data spreadsheets.

As one of our team leaders, Martin Rayner, comments, “Without wishing to sound completely naff, covering something so big and watched by so many makes you feel like you’re a (tiny) part of history, so it can be a bit of a buzz – though that might have been the caffeine.

“This was the third election I’d covered live, and from a prep point of view, by far the most stress-free. I felt ready for everything, basically. Even Paddy Ashdown not eating a hat.

To find out more about the work of Ericsson Broadcast and Media Services, visit

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