The DVD media format – is it the best example of closed captioning and subtitles workflow?

Screen shot of the Video Caption Reader logo explaining captions will appear if a decoder is connected to your TV and video recorder.

Video Caption Reader – Some VHS players could decode captions that were provided on some VHS releases.

Remember the above? When the DVD replaced the VHS it was a revolution in access to media for those of us that use subtitles or closed captioning. No longer did you require the more expensive end of the market of VHS players capable of decoding a captioning track that only some released titles on VHS had available. Distributors started to supply captions and subtitles with many titles released on the DVD format. And so I have heard many say that the DVD supply chain is the best subtitle or captioning model to follow when it comes to other ways that we are now choosing to view our media content be it streamed or downloaded to and from multiple devices. On a general level I would agree with this statement but there are still issues with it which I will discuss in this post.

  • Regions – DVD distribution globally is split into regions. This allows distributors to control release dates, content and price, according to the region in which it is being sold. I don’t actually think there is any benefit to the consumer for this, it is only a benefit to the distributors themselves. Please comment and correct me if you think otherwise. In fact when it comes to subtitles or captions it can lead to much frustration. To give an example, a region 1 DVD for a particular title may be subtitled or captioned, but in another region it is not. This can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is because different distributors are responsible for the DVD release in different regions. Has anyone reading had to buy a different region DVD to their home region in order to get access to captioning or subtitles? I have.
    Animated GIF of a scene from the TV series Due South

    TV Series Due South, Region 1 DVD has English subtitles, Region 2 does not. Why? Because the different regions have different distributors responsible for the DVD rights. IMAGE SOURCE: tumblr

    My DVD home region is region 2 but the DVD release of one of my favourite TV shows Due South is not provided with subtitles because the distributor for region 2 Due South DVD has not provided them on the disc. Instead I had to purchase a Region 1 DVD released by a different distributor who has provided captions and subtitles on the disc. In order to play this disc however I have to ensure that my DVD player is multi-regional. What was a simple work-flow has become complicated by the creation of different regions for the sale of DVD media to the consumer.

  • Not all distributors choose to provide subtitles or captions for every single release. It is probably fair to say however that the DVD is the most widely subtitled/captioned format.
  • Many distributors for reasons I cannot understand do not subtitle media that they consider exempt. This is often applied to DVDs on sports, music (see my blog post here), and documentaries. Why should any of these be exempt?
  • DVD labelling – You would think that distributors could get this right. Now on the whole they do but I have purchased DVDs which according to the labelling has subtitles available only to find that when I insert the disc into my DVD player, there are no subtitles available. Even worse, some distributors are missing out on potential sales by not making it clear on labelling that subtitles are available for titles (this is a much rarer occurrence in my experience). This situation worries me more than it did recently. Over recent weeks in the UK there have been announcement of the closure of high street stores and DVD stockists HMV and Blockbuster. Changes in buying habits from the high street to online and from DVD to download have been some of the claimed reasons for the closure of these stores. I fear that the subtitle user has much more to lose from this. This is because online shops don’t always provide the information to the consumer for DVD titles as to whether subtitles are available. When this information isn’t listed online I have often picked up the DVD media in the shop to check the labelling which usually does provide this info. I might not be able to do this for much longer*. Moreover it is subtitle users that are probably more likely to purchase the DVD format over downloads or streaming since these formats currently are rarely subtitled.

Do I want to go back to VHS? Of course not, DVD has certainly seen a massive step in the right direction with subtitles and captions availability. Wouldn’t it be nice if the new ways in which we are choosing to watch media eventually does even better than the DVD with subtitles and caption availability? Get rid of regions, provide captions for all titles – including music, sports, documentaries, and make it clear when subtitles and captions are available.

*A fantastic resource for those in region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray zones is DVD subtitles which tries to correct where labelling and/or online shops go wrong. It provides detailed analysis of subtitle availability for all aspects including extras on DVD discs. This information is collated by volunteers so do help contribute if you find this useful. I know I do.