, ,

Apple Adds Closed Captioning Support for AppleTV, But Content Falls Short

I went to MacWorld last week! As a Mac user and a newly-minted resident of San Francisco, it was my holy and solemn duty to go. I made especially sure to go the day after Steve Jobs’ keynote so I could see new Apple machines on display. While my hopes for a MacBook Pro update was dashed, I was intrigued by the updated Apple TV and the MacBook Air.

First, obligatory picture of the MacBook Air. You may now ooh and ahh.

Now, I spent far more time with the Apple TV. What a great product…buy or rent movies. Watch Flickr photo feeds. Along with iTunes Movie Rentals, I could unlatch myself from the tyranny of Netflix’s 3-day wait for DVDs and recapture the holy grail that is every American’s birthright: instant gratification.

Alas, we are all deaf people here, and require captioning or subtitling to enjoy movies. Remember how Apple added closed captioning support for iTunes and iPods? I wondered if this applied to the Apple TV as well.

I talked with one of the Apple floor guys, and sure enough, the answer is yes. It’s in the Video menu in the Settings screen.

So far, so good. Now are any of the movies closed captioned? None of the movies available showed the [CC] symbol. So for our first try, we watched Ratatouille (SD) (standard definition, which is like normal TV compared to high-definition, HD).

Sure enough, it’s captioned! And it looks so pretty too–like rectangular black bubbles illuminated by soft blue light.

However, this was dumb luck. The other three movies we tried–Blades of Glory (SD), Live Free and Die Hard (HD), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (HD)–did not display any captions.

For that matter, neither did any of the TV shows (also available on Apple TV) that we tried: ScrubsCSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or Family Guy.

Clearly, there is some work left to do. Apple did its part by building in closed captioning support, so now the burden appears to be on the content providers–the major Hollywood studios–to ensure their online offerings are closed captioned. But my blog doesn’t stop here.

I went home after MacWorld thinking maybe I’d rent a movie via the iTunes Movie Store. I picked Ratatouille even though it had no [CC] symbol in iTunes because, hey, I knew it was definitely captioned (via my experience with Apple TV at MacWorld) and it’s supposedly the same rental system as used on the Apple TV.

Imagine my surprise when Ratatouille didn’t display any captions (and I made sure to turn it on via Preferences). It turns out Ratatouille’s not captioned if you rent it on your computer. But it is when you rent it through Apple TV. Huh?

So either Apple is serving up different movie files for Apple TV rentals and iTunes Movie rentals separately, or it’s the same movie file, but each system reads closed captioning encoding differently. Neither approach really makes sense. I strongly feel that if one movie displays captions on one system, it should display captions across all Apple systems, especially since they all support closed captioning.

I kept an eye on deafmac.org because I knew they’d talk about this issue sooner or later, and sure enough, Chad Taylor blogged about his experience renting a movie in iTunes.

Chad says with glee that he rented Team America: World Police on iTunes and it displayed captions beautifully. What’s more, he transferred it to his iPhone and captions were also displayed on there, too.

I ran to Team America’s page on iTunes and, sure enough, there is a [CC] symbol there. Awesome. That’s a step in the right direction. But how the heck do I find other movies that are also closed captioned?

One person at deafmac.org figured it out. Johnathan, in comment 13, says:

You can go to iTunes, go to Browse and click Movies then you can pick any under Genre. You will see CC logo under Name and next to ratings

I’ll rephrase here. iTunes gives you two ways of browsing for movies–through its flashy graphical interface, or through the Browse screen. You can go to the Movies page, and then click on “Browse” in the upper-right. An easier way is to just go to the View menu and click on “Show Browser” (Command-B). This is what it looks like:

Notice the [CC] symbol next to Clockstoppers and Dragonslayer. Nice. But there really aren’t that many closed captioned movies available. Out of 1,195 movies available for purchase or rental on iTunes, a paltry 23 are closed captioned (I counted them).

What’s interesting about these 23 movies? They’re all distributed by Paramount Pictures. Kudos to them for taking a step which all the other movie studios haven’t done yet.

Captioning among Apple’s products is not perfect yet. It certainly seems farther along than any of the other movie-on-demand websites such as Netflix’s new Instant Viewing feature, which doesn’t even work on the Mac yet. What’s more, there’s no legal requirement for any of them to do this…yet.

The law which requires closed captioning applies only to television content transmitted by cable or satellite broadcasting. Instant gratification will have to wait. Fortunately, NAD is working on this issue and has supported draft legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives titled “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.”

Let’s hope this gets passed soon so we don’t have to keep writing blogs like this and instead be able to simply trust that anything we buy or rent–whether it’s at Blockbuster, through Netflix, or downloaded at iTunes, be closed captioned.

You know, like how it used to be before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *