The state of subtitling in online media
7.5 million people in the UK, or about 13% of the population, have some form of hearing impairment which may reduce their ability to enjoy video content. Subtitles or closed captioning are now available on most programmes and films shown on TV, in pre-recorded and live broadcasts. However, as more media becomes available online through download and streaming services, providers need to make sure that they keep the same standard of subtitling available.
To see what the current state of subtitling is, I conducted a brief survey of popular online media sources. The data I gathered is not comprehensive due to small sample sizes, but I believe it’s enough to provide a good measure of subtitling support. Here’s what I found:
|Source||Sample size||Subtitles available||Subtitles available (%)|
|BBC iPlayer (TV)||20||18||90%|
Notes on data collection
You can only determine whether a programme has subtitles or not by playing it on the iPlayer, so I only took a sample of the 20 most recent highlighted shows.
Hulu clearly marks programmes with closed captioning.
For Hulu, I sampled 100 shows from the list of the most popular programmes from the current day. The US-only equivalent to iPlayer also clearly shows which programmes have closed captions and which do not.
DVDs are obviously not online media, but I thought that they would provide an interesting comparison. I collected data from the top 50 list on the DVD Subtitles website.
Although downloading media using BitTorrent is a legal grey area at best, it’s such a popular way of getting TV programmes and films that it would be silly to ignore it. I collected data by browsing The Pirate Bay’s top movies and checking each torrent for subtitle files. I ignored duplicate films and those with foreign language subtitles already included.
Half of the torrents sampled had subtitles, but it’s probable that the number of subtitled films is actually slightly higher due to the strength of the subtitling scene. Websites like Open Subtitles, Subscene, DivX SubTitles, Subtitle Online and allsubs.org have huge databases of subtitles which work with BitTorrent downloads.
iTunes’ subtitling support is extremely poor.
I collected the data by using the browse view to list all of the films, then counted the number of subtitled films in each category, before aggregating that information. However, there is a caveat, which is that some films like Team America are in more than one category. I counted 128 films with closed captioning, but the iTunes Power Search shows that only 99 unique movies actually have it.
Observations and conclusions
The most surprising thing that I found was the extremely weak level of subtitling on iTunes. Apple provides closed captioning support on the iPod Touch, iPhone, Apple TV and within iTunes itself, but this doesn’t include any TV programmes. The films which are subtitled are easy to find, but there are still very few of them on the store.
In contrast to the legal alternative, BitTorrent provides much better subtitling support. Although few advanced releases have subtitles, many of those which have been ripped from DVDs do. There are also numerous websites which provide subtitles for both TV programmes and movies. Getting media from BitTorrent might not be legal, but when it comes to online distribution, it’s often the only option available.
The iPlayer has good subtitle support, but you can only see which programmes have them by playing them.
The BBC’s iPlayer has the best subtitling support, which is no surprise given their commitment to accessibility and the level of subtitling already available on their standard TV broadcasts. However, it’s worth noting that you have to play each show before you can determine whether it has subtitles or not. The US equivalent, Hulu, is not far behind. Most programmes have subtitles and those that do are clearly marked.
I included DVDs as a benchmark, but expected the number of films and TV box-sets with subtitles to be significantly higher. Evidently, subtitles on DVDs are not something that can be taken for granted.
As someone who never uses subtitles, except in foreign-language films, I assumed that number of films and TV shows with them available would be far higher than it actually is. In fact, all of the sources I sampled could do much to improve their accessibility for people with a hearing impairment. In the case of iTunes, the lack of support is embarrassing to say the least.