BBC tests live-stream captions on iPlayer, setting it ahead of many U.S. digital video providers

The BBC's digital video service, iPlayer, may not yet be in the U.S., but once it gets here -- if it gets here, rather than as a differently packaged subscription service -- it could have a feature that no other major OTT provider has: subtitles on live-streamed content.

BBC is currently trialing subtitles, or captions, on iPlayer's live channels. The test is only available right now on desktop computers (Mac and PC), and will roll out to mobile devices and tablets in a few months, followed by connected TVs, according to a release on the service's website.

"The BBC is already a world-leading provider of accessible services -- but we know there is always more to do. We want to ensure our content and services are accessible to everyone -- and this trial will give viewers who are deaf or hearing-impaired access to even more programming than ever before," said Gareth Ford Williams, head of accessibility for the BBC, in the release.

About 20 percent of iPlayer's on-demand content is watched using subtitles. That equates to about 2 million programs per day, the BBC said.

Adding a caption feature to its live content would put BBC iPlayer ahead of current U.S. requirements to caption online videos. Those rules were adopted by the FCC in 2010 and revised in 2014, and gradually phase in captions on various types of content. Technically, only video that was first broadcast on television has to be captioned once it is streamed on the Internet; live and near-live programming have a grace period of 12 and 8 hours, respectively, to provide captions on online clips of the videos streamed over the Internet (such as highlights).

Basically, there's still a bit of leeway in captioning online content in the U.S. And while many OTT providers have worked ahead and captioned their entire video libraries -- Netflix being the biggest example -- live streaming captions aren't always considered. It is possible to incorporate captioning in live streams – even YouTube has made the option available for its live streams, although it does require supporting software and a bit of tinkering.

BBC didn't provide details on how it is implementing captions on its live content -- whether the subtitles will be embedded directly into the video stream, or sent as "sidecar files" that are independent of the audio and video being streamed. But the performance of those live captions, and the final product, should be of interest to the industry and viewers alike.

For more:
- see the release
- see this VOD Professional article
- see this 3Play Media release

Related articles:
FCC order aims to clear up who's responsible for captioning video
3Play Media aims to lower online video captioning barriers as accessibility advocates step up their game
Closed captioning's role becomes more complex in multiscreen world