BT, Sky and Virgin all offer the facility to turn subtitles on, but the amount of subtitled content varies depending on a customer's package.
It's also trickier to turn on subtitles on Sky Q and Virgin TV 360 unless a customer is willing and able to use voice control.
On demand platforms aren't yet regulated by Ofcom for their accessibility, so coverage there is patchier.
Subtitles by provider
All three pay TV providers in the UK offer subtitles to customers, although the ease of accessing them varies.
The number of channels with subtitles depends on a customer's package and how those channels are affected by Ofcom's quotas.
We look at Ofcom's role in more detail later in this guide, but first let's take a look at subtitles on BT TV, Sky TV and Virgin Media TV.
BT TV operates a service mainly based on Now TV passes and their own BT Sport content.
We cover Now TV channels in more detail in the on demand section below, but these are the percentage figures for the three sports channels covered in Ofcom's latest accessibly data:
|Channel||Quota (Oct 2020)||Achieved (Oct 2020)|
|BT Sport 2||64.2%||71.7%|
|BT Sport 3||45.4%||69.1%|
|BT Sport 1||64.2%||59.1%|
Subtitling on BT Sport 1 was the only one of the three that fell beneath Ofcom's quota, but none of them are especially high.
In terms of turning subtitles on for BT TV customers, there's a dedicated SUB button on the TV remote that allows users to turn subtitles on and off when they wish.
There's also an accessibility menu that can be access via the main menu on BT TV. Users can go to Settings > Accessibility & Language >> Language & Subtitles to find the option to turn subtitles on.
Once subtitles are switched on, all programmes with available subtitles will have them switched on by default. Within the TV guide, programmes with subtitles available will have an [S] icon beside them.
Many of Sky's own channels on Sky TV have high levels of subtitling, although there are some exceptions.
It's useful to look at their individual channels in the data recorded by Ofcom to see where the problems lie:
|Channel||Quota (Oct 2020)||Achieved (Oct 2020)|
|Sky Cinema Hits||80%||99.1%|
|Sky Cinema Thriller||80%||97.4%|
|Sky Cinema Premiere||80%||96.9%|
|Sky Cinema Comedy||80%||96.6%|
|Sky Cinema Drama & Romance||80%||96.1%|
|Sky Cinema Family||80%||96.1%|
|Sky Cinema Action||80%||96%|
|Sky Cinema Sci-Fi & Horror||80%||95.9%|
|Sky Cinema Greats||80%||89.5%|
|Sky Sports Premier League||60%||83.8%|
|Sky Sports Cricket||80%||82.3%|
|Sky Sports Main Event||80%||81.7%|
|Sky Sports Action||80%||81.1%|
|Sky Sports Golf||80%||80.8%|
|Sky Sports News||80%||80.3%|
|Sky Sports F1||70%||78.2%|
|Sky Sports Mix||35%||40.6%|
|Sky Sports Football||22.5%||39.8%|
|Sky Sports Arena||22.5%||36.6%|
In all cases, the level of subtitling on a channel exceeds the amount Ofcom says it should have (there's more detail on their calculations later). However, the younger channels Sky Sports Mix, Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Arena don't have subtitling levels too far above their quotas.
This suggests Sky work to increase the subtitling levels on a channel in line with the quotas set by the regulator, perhaps proving why the quotas are necessary to improve subtitling options for customers.
Looking elsewhere, customers with Ultra HD entertainment or cinema content will not be able to access subtitles on those programmes.
Ultra HD sports content can be used with subtitles, although this doesn't work for red button content on Sky Sports channels.
Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video subscribers who watch their content through their Sky Q box can turn subtitles on within the apps themselves.
We cover Sky Go, Sky's on demand app, later in this guide.
Switching subtitles on using the Sky remote is a two-step process by pressing the ? symbol on the Sky Q remote and press Select to toggle the subtitles on and off. They can also be controlled via the voice control function on compatible Sky remotes.
Subtitles will continue to appear on available channels and programmes until switched off.
Virgin Media don't provide their own channels, so details on the subtitling available on Virgin Media TV channels can be found in the BT and Sky TV sections above or the more detailed look at Ofcom's quota system below.
However, it's worth noting Virgin's latest TV 360 box actually takes what feels like a step backwards when it comes to access subtitles.
They have thrown their weight behind voice control, and it was one of the big features they mentioned when the box was first launched in November 2020.
However, if a customer doesn't want to use voice control to access subtitles on their Virgin TV 360 box, they will need to press three or four buttons to switch on subtitles.
Virgin do recognise this as an issue since they've included it in their FAQs page for the 360 box. Yet they simply say the fastest way to access subtitles is to use voice control.
That feels rather disingenuous, since many people will want subtitles switched on precisely because they are hard of hearing. Asking those customers to use voice control to turn subtitles on and off feels as though Virgin is making life difficult for hard of hearing or elderly customers who may just benefit more from a dedicated subtitle button.
It's a step back when we consider the Virgin TV V6 remote includes a dedicated button for switching subtitles on and off.
Video on demand platforms
Subtitles on many video on demand (VoD) platforms are covered within Ofcom's annual figures, although Netflix isn't included in the list so we'll cover it separately below.
Ofcom's report highlights the following percentages of subtitled content for VoD platforms:
|Platform||Percentage of hours subtitled|
|Amazon Prime Video||87.7%|
Note: these are the average figures for subtitled content. Things get more complicated when we consider some platforms offer on demand services through their own overarching platform (i.e., Sky on Demand) and the amount of subtitled content on there may differ.
As an example, we might wonder why Nickelodeon has such a low rate of subtitling for its on demand services when, as we'll see below, their channels achieve 100% subtitling.
It's because the amount of subtitling over different platforms varies as does the number of content hours available:
|Platform offering Nickelodeon||Percentage of hours subtitled||Total hours of programming|
|Sky on Demand||100%||1566.8|
|Android or iOS||0%||43.5|
|Virgin Media on Demand||0%||422.8|
So, Sky on Demand has the most Nickelodeon content available and their Sky on Demand service offers 100% subtitling for it.
However, just a few lines down in the table, we see Sky Go has the same number of programming hours yet offers0% subtitling.
Sky do say subtitles are available when accessing on demand content through Sky Go on mobile devices, yet there are several instances where Ofcom's figures don't tally with that (ITV Hub, Milkshake and My5 are all at 0% too).
It could be that Ofcom's figures are out of date by a few months and Sky have upped their game, but it's something to be aware of when searching for a platform that offers subtitles across various on demand services.
Netflix is slightly different to the streaming examples above because it isn't regulated by Ofcom as an on-demand programme service (ODPS). As the company is based in the Netherlands, complaints can't be made to Ofcom about the streaming service, and it is under no obligation to meet subtitling requirements.
That means while we may applaud Ofcom's determination to set accessibility targets (see below), Netflix is usually going to fall outside the remit of this unless they voluntary implement the rules.
However, Netflix do seem to have responded to concerns from their customers and many of their shows offer subtitling in several languages. They're especially proficient at supplying them for their own Netflix Originals, although older shows (generally licensed from others) may not have the same diversity.
The option for turning subtitles on is found in the playback bar, so it can be accessed immediately when a programme is paused or hovered over in the browser.
Subtitle regulation in the UK
Ofcom regulate TV channels in the UK to check how much subtitled content they provide to customers.
We've already covered some of the provider-led channels from BT and Sky, but here are the subtitled content levels for other major channels in the UK as of 2020:
|% of content subtitled||Channels|
|100%||4Seven, BBC News, CBBC, Cbeebies, Channel 4, E4, Film 4, ITV, More 4, Nick Jr, Nick Jr Too, Nickelodeon, Nicktoons|
|99%||BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 4, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, STV North, Fox|
|90% - 98%||CITV, Channel 5, ITVBe, Alibi, Comedy Central Extra, W, 5USA, Yesterday, Gold, MTV, Dave, Drama, TLC,|
|80% - 89%||5STAR, Comedy Central, Universal, 4Music, Really, 5Select, Home, Animal Planet, MTV Music|
|70% - 79%||Discovery, S4C, Quest, Cartoon Network, National Geographic|
|60% - 69%||Quest Red, E!, Boomerang|
|50% - 59%||CBS Reality, Movies 24 Plus, Movies 24|
|Less||Investigation Discovery, Paramount Network, SyFy|
Ofcom place requirements on channels depending on how long they have been available to customers. The targets for subtitling are:
|End of which year||Percentage of subtitled content|
|Tenth and above||80%|
The exceptions to the 80% rule are the major UK channels: the BBC must offer 100% while ITV and Channel 4 must both hit 90%.
Complicating matters from a customer's point of view is that Ofcom may exclude services and programmes from the statutory targets. This could be because:
- The size of the intended audience is small
- The number of disabled people set to benefit from the assistance may be small
- The benefit to viewers of the provision isn't extensive
- Technical difficulties in providing the assistance
- Too expensive for any of the reasons mentioned above
The details on how Ofcom make these judgements are highly technical, but that's little consolation for customers wondering why their favourite channels don't have subtitles available.
On demand reforms
Ofcom are in the midst of a long-running effort to improve the accessibility of on demand services.
We reported way back in January 2019 that Ofcom had issued recommendations to the Government to help with reforms of the Digital Economy Act 2017.
It seemed long overdue as we'd published a piece from Action on Hearing Loss in 2013 highlighting the lack of subtitling provision. This followed criticisms of Lovefilm (since taken over by Amazon) for excluded hard of hearing viewers.
However, two years down the line, progress has been slow.
A further consultation was opened by Ofcom in July 2020 and subsequently closed in September 2020. Since then, everything has gone quiet.
So, quotas and regulation are potentially on the way for on demand platforms, but they're taking their time getting here. Plus, when regulations do arrive, they will undoubtedly have exceptions in the same way we've seen for TV channels - and it won't cover Netflix.
Conclusion: patchy progress
Many UK television channels have good levels of subtitling, and Ofcom's quotas ensure major channels are compelled to keep up with certain levels of subtitling the longer their channel is on the air in the UK.
The Ofcom quotas affect which channels have high levels of subtitles, meaning the amount of accessible content on channels within packages from Sky TV and Virgin Media are broadly the same (depending on a customer's package).
Where problems are starting to crop up on traditional pay TV are with the remotes. It used to be that TV remotes had a dedicated button for turning subtitles on and off as we saw with the Virgin V6 and BT's current remote.
Yet Sky Q customers have to go through at least two button presses and Virgin Media customers need to go through up to four to toggle subtitles on and off. While both remotes offer and promote their voice control services, this seems to be at the expense of hard of hearing customers who just want an efficient way of turning subtitles on and off.
Subtitling on platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Sky Go and ITV Hub is yet to be regulated, but progress is still somewhere on the horizon.