Think-tank says yes to English subtitles

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2008, 12:00am

Will extra subtitles encourage better English, or simply obscure the screen?

All English-language programmes broadcast on television by the two terrestrial networks should carry

English subtitles, the Hong Kong government's language think-tank has proposed.

However, television industry insiders say that the proposal, by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, would create problems and interfere with enjoyment.

They pointed out that English-language programmes already carry Chinese subtitles and the addition of English would mean that an even larger part of the screen would be covered in text.

The proposal follows a Broadcasting Authority review last year on whether the English subtitles requirement should be expanded.

This was followed by the release in December of a public consultation paper on subtitle requirements for English-language programmes provided by ATV and TVB.

They are required to provide English subtitles on their English-language channels for news, weather, current affairs and public announcements in addition to the two hours of English-language programmes 'with educational value targeting teenagers' per week.

The committee proposed that both ATV and TVB should be required by their licences to provide English subtitles for all the English-language programmes they broadcast.

A committee spokeswoman said that while other television programme service providers, such as pay-TV networks Cable TV and Now Broadband TV, were not included in the review, it supported the provision of English subtitles as a means of creating a 'conducive language-learning environment'.

'To enhance Hong Kong's competitive edge as an international centre for business, finance and tourism, it is important that we create a [proactive] English-learning environment to raise [the] standard of English in our workforce,' the spokeswoman said.

'The media plays an important role in this respect.

'Provision of subtitles would help learners to improve their English-language listening and reading ability.'

The consultation paper cited a few suggestions, like extending the requirement to 'all positive' programmes such as children's shows and documentaries; all programmes within family viewing hours of 4pm and 8.30pm; or all programmes within prime time, from 7pm to 11pm.

The paper also pointed out that the introduction of digital broadcasting would allow for closed captioning - subtitles that are hidden but can be activated when needed.

TVB has said the closed-caption facility would be available when digital broadcasting matures, but the station would listen to different opinions in the meantime.

ATV said its views had been submitted to the government and declined to disclose them to the public.

But television industry insiders said introducing English subtitles for all English-language programmes could be distracting for viewers, especially native English speakers.

'Most people do not have a large TV screen, and if both English and Chinese subtitles are added, at least one-third of the screen will be filled with text. How can people appreciate a TV programme if they can't see it?' asked an industry veteran who did not wish to be named. Those who watch English-language children's programmes do not need English subtitles because they are native English speakers. Those who would need subtitles would just watch children's programmes on the Chinese-language channels,' said another anonymous television professional.

The broadcasting watchdog said its secretariat was consolidating the opinions collected in the public consultation exercise which ended in January, and would submit its assessment for discussion.

Cable TV could not be reached for comment. Now Broadband TV said it would raise the issue with content providers to determine if a closed-caption service was possible.

This article by Vivienne Chow first appeared in the Sunday Morning Post on March 9