BBC subtitles

I can’t believe I’m the only person to notice that the subtitles on the BBC are atrocious.

I’ve recently been using them more often, in order not to aggravate the GF when she’s on the phone or studying; when she’s out watching UK tv, she likes to have them on to help her with her English.

Sadly, they’re full of inaccuracies, spelling mistakes and generally just miss the point completely.

When transcribing numbers, the typers usually just make a wild stab at what they thought they heard – the episode of Dragon’s Den I watched today (yes, I know I’m behind!), in just one pitch, transcribed 20% as 25%, 1,16 million as 1,6 million, half a dozen spelling mistakes, etc, etc.

Spanish subtitles, on the other hand, are always spot on, even if they do rewrite longer sentences to make them fit on the screen (so “I took the long way round to enjoy the view” might become “took a scenic shortcut”). But the spelling and grammar is always OK, as is the general transcribing of the script.

16 Replies to “BBC subtitles”

  1. It’s something called ‘technology’ David. No people involved. This means it’s cheaper and less effective. usually.

  2. Then I suggest they get in touch with the people who do Vodafone’s automatic text to sms messaging service and use them.

  3. My wife has hearing difficulties and relies more and more on BBC subtitles but is increasingly infuriated by their poor quality and sometimes downright misleading or simply ludicrous nature.

    Officially, the BBC says that live programmes are subtitled by people repeating or paraphrasing dialogue which is automatically converted to text by speech-recognition technology, but monitored and corrected as necessary by the operator.

    Seeing some of the crazy things they put up, I can’t believe they aren’t just feeding the broadcast sound into speech-recognition software and letting it spew out whatever gobbledeygook it comes up with.

    We’ve asked the BBC about this but they have ignored us, although someone from the RNID we copied did reply saying that it was better than nothing.

    Amazingly, almost all online comment on this subject is full of praise for BBC subtitling. It was therefore something of a relief to find someone (you) who feels as we do.

    Thanks for listening.

  4. I have a little hearing defect so have the subtitling facility on all the time and I am so pleased that I am not totally dependant on this service. I have just watched the bbc news only to find that according to the subtitling that David Cameron killed his newly acquired cat. Should the RSPCA be informed? My grown up children now have the subtitles on when watching TV, not because they have hearing problems but because some of the gaffes made are hilarious. On a serious note though,the people that do depend on this facility must be very confused as the incorrect wording used bears no relationship to the topic.

  5. You do seem to be a lonely voice online. I just searched for information on the obvious flaw and yours was the only hit in the first ten results: the remainder were congratulatory. We’ve just rolled our eyes at “some lightning and Hell later, … chant of showers” and now want to know exactly why it’s like that. My subtitle-dependent parents say there are often spelling mistakes, so it seems unlikely it’s solely machine-generated.

  6. A lot of it is stenography, people typing as they listen. They don’t get paid to spellcheck…

  7. Mis-spelling we can forgive, but often what appears in the subtitling is so meaningless it is way beyond what a human could dream up. I only wish I had the time to sit in front of the TV and video some choice examples. Having said that, I doubt if I would have to wait more than a few moments during the local news bulletin to come up with some corkers.
    I believe the BBC think we are just being unreasonably pedantic, but as Maggie says, people who are totally dependent on subtitles to understand what is going on in the world must find them totally confusing.
    But instead of keeping on moaning about it, I will make a renewed effort through unoffical channels to find out exactly what the subtitling people do (or do not do)that delivers such an appaling service.

  8. Frankly, I still blame quality control. If only people knew they would get in trouble for typing without paying attention….. Well, for a start, I’d be closed down!!!

  9. I hate to disillusion all you good folks, but it’s not actually real people typing. It’s called ‘voice recognition software’. It’s cheaper than real people, if not better.

  10. Which is why we often see, in live typing, the expression “misspelt word……###correctly spelt word”… it’s the software looking back on what it just typed and saying damn, hit the wrong key.

    But yes, a lot of it is automatic.

    You have “offline subtitling”, which is where someone sits down with a recorded programme and checks the subtitles, and then you have “respeaking”, which is the sub-titler reading (in a specially trained accent) into the voice recognition software. Any major misspellings are manually corrected as the program goes out. This introduces a delay of several seconds, which is why the subtitles aren’t live on news programmes.

    And here’s a piece about how they came up with the font:

  11. Yes they employ a small number of people to monitor what’s going out. But like I said, the original transcription is voice recognition software.

  12. Anyway, a lot of it is junk. But what do I care? Two ears, and I don’t pay the license fee 🙂

  13. Dear Sir/Madam,I have poor hearing and rely very much on sub-titles which , generally, I find very good indeed and a great boon. However, with pre-recorded programmes, I cannot understand why, sometimes,the sub-title does not synchronise with the spoken word. Is there some explanation – Please? Many thanks.
    William Newell

  14. Hey,

    Yes, a couple of years on, the TV subtitles are just as bad – if not worse. And there’s also the problem with online video. I am writing an article with a view to starting a campaign to change all this.

    I would really appreciate if anyone with something to say about the poor quality of subtitles could get in contact with me (via the contact page on or you can publish my email – – especially if you have complained to Ofcom, BBC or RNID (action on hearing loss).


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