In my time as a subtitler with Red Bee Media / Ericsson’s Access Services department, I have come to develop an eagerness to produce high-quality captions for all audiences, regardless of the content or the network it broadcasts on. The same is true for my colleagues. One might expect that this kind of pride in providing a high-quality service to hearing-impaired viewers would be shared and even encouraged by the operation’s management, but instead, I have observed the repeated slashing of quality control measures in the interest of increasing profitability. The logic goes that any labour spent reviewing, proofreading, and improving our work could be more “productively” deployed in the production of a greater quantity of subtitles. This necessarily results in a poorer quality of subtitles. The cutbacks are especially pronounced in the North American offices in Montréal, QC and Duluth, GA, which are new to the operation and which management has established will be the main target for cost-saving in the global operation.
In the course of creating subtitles and performing associated administrative duties, subtitlers are regularly confronted by the skeletal remains of now-defunct quality control infrastructure. Before I discuss this infrastructure, it’s important to understand that with respect to accuracy, live subtitling is an especially imperfect process. Subtitlers must make editorial decision on the fly, and voice recognition software can be a fickle friend. Live subtitles may be created from scratch by subtitlers (i.e. “live respeaking”), they may be produced based on prepared text provided by the broadcaster, or (in the case of repeated content) they might be re-transmissions of text which has already been created. In previous years at Red Bee Media / Ericsson, when text was to be re-transmitted in this way, it would be proofread after the first transmission, ensuring that all subsequent transmissions would have near-perfect accuracy. Today, there is no such process. The result is that the same errors transmit over and over again. Attempts to correct errors on the fly are often thwarted by technical issues. When it comes to subtitling pre-recorded programmes, there has been a similar scaling back of proofreading over the years.
Ignoring the workers’ requests
In the process of preparing to caption a programme live, every minute is precious. Subtitlers are often provided with copy that is rife with typos and spelling mistakes, or which contains bizarre formatting that must be meticulously stripped out in order to create captions that conform to regulator guidelines and client house styles. In the past year, the preparation time allotted for live-subtitled programmes has been almost unilaterally cut in half. Management has repeatedly ignored requests from captioning and training staff to increase allotted prep time on certain live programmes. They contend that workers will “adapt” to the new requirements, never mind that even experienced subtitlers often struggle to complete the barest minimum of prep work.
At Red Bee Media / Ericsson, the main established quality-control measure for ensuring accuracy of live subtitles is detailed reviews of subtitlers’ work. In the long-established UK wing of the operation, subtitlers are reviewed three times a month: once by themselves, once by a peer, and once by support staff. In the past year, the managers of the North American operation have eliminated both peer reviews and self-reviews, and have eliminated the system which ensured that a wide variety of work is reviewed. The result is that subtitlers are left with very little insight into where improvements must be made.
One quality control issue stands out to me as particularly egregious. In this case, a colourblind employee who had difficulty colourizing text for UK broadcasts was repeatedly told that accessibility accommodations will not be provided to workers because accurately colourizing the text isn’t a high priority for broadcasters. It’s worth noting that television viewers, not broadcasters, are the users of subtitles. In many regions, colour changes are the only method used to indicate a change of speaker. The viewer has the right to expect that subtitlers would at least try to use colours accurately. In this case, Red Bee Media / Ericsson management is failing doubly: it is failing its viewers as well as its employees. The blasé attitude of Access Services managers towards its accessibility responsibilities to its own workers provides a disturbing insight into its attitudes about accessibility services generally.
Disdain for improvements
These cutbacks – as well as the discontinuation of a newsletter which used to inform workers about the access services industry generally – underscore management’s disinterest in providing high-quality access services to its clients’ viewership. Red Bee Media / Ericsson Access Services management have made it clear that many of the broadcasters for whom we produce subtitles don’t care about the quality of the subtitles, and have frequently used this reasoning to support decisions to scale back or eliminate the above-mentioned quality control measures. Red Bee Media / Ericsson management’s disregard for the viewers that use its product is clear.
When workers are told improving their work is a waste of time something is amiss – when viewers in the deaf and hard of hearing communities are harmed by putting profits over people, the injury is doubly shameful.
The Montreal Subtitlers Union is currently seeking to negotiate its first Collective Agreement with Red Bee Media / Ericsson, a company that refused to negotiate as of March 21, 2018. The workers are asking for fair wages and break based on the global operation, and an end to gruelling shift-patterns.