Published on December 23rd, 2017 | by Sebastian Szwarc


What’s the deal with subtitles on Apple TV?

In this day and time, support for displaying subtitles on television programs seems so natural that most people – especially the younger generation – might not remember a time when they were not available.

I remember back in the 1990s, in the glory days of analog television, that the only way to see subtitles was turning on European Teletext to page 777 while watching a movie. It was not the most ideal way to watch TV what with a jumble of unrecognizable Slavic-language characters interspersed between broken-up letters and words, not to mention the poor syncing of the subtitles to the video.

In digital times, things should be simple. After all, movies from iTunes include multiple audio language tracks and subtitles. More importantly, with the increased distribution of TV and movies in multiple languages all over the globe, subtitles have become not just essential, but mandatory to the viewing experience.

But when 4th generation Apple TV was introduced things were not always so smooth. While support in America was rather well executed, it was a very different story in the United Kingdom.

Subtitles…the short explanation

The way in which TV networks broadcast subtitles is a little complex, but it’s important to understand where the responsibility lies in providing the on-screen feature. Live subtitles are the whole responsibility of that broadcaster even IF they provide them. Recorded, or non-live programming – shows like old episodes of “M*A*S*H” or “The Big Bang Theory” – are embedded with subtitles built into the digital recording that a broadcaster streams.

The problem with most subtitle support is that the main broadcaster is getting the subtitled data, but is not supporting the technology that would forward it on through their streaming app to the customer. The examples are many.

The sorry state of subtext support in the UK

Let’s start with the British Broadcasting Company – one of the world’s largest broadcasters – and it’s tvOS app, iPlayer. Introduced soon after the 4th-gen Apple TV was launched, it hasn’t changed much ever since. Unlike its iOS counterpart, it lacks subtitles and user profiles so there is no syncing between iOS and tvOS.

Adding to the confusion, if you do see subtitles on your iPhone, they disappear if you turn on AirPlay to watch the video on your television. The BBC claims to use subtitling technology that is incompatible with Apple TV, but we should expect much more from a leading European public broadcaster.

It’s a similar story with the streaming service Now TV from UK satellite company Sky. Now TV is available as an app on Apple TV and its subtitle support is virtually nonexistent. NowTV promised a year ago it will slowly add subs to their shows. My conservative guess is that less than 10 percent of its programming has subtitles. Their app was last updated in 2015 using a really old version of Apple’s Television Markup Language (TVML) for third-generation AppleTV and older. That in itself proves its the broadcaster that is preventing subtitled programming from being seen. This is also unacceptable and has a major impact on viewing for thousands, if not millions, of people.

Let’s look at two newcomers to Apple TV introduced just recently – ITV Hub and Channel 5’s My 5. There is one notable distinction between these two because the former supports live programming while the latter serves only on-demand content from its portfolio of channels.

Both providers handle subs in opposite ways. Flat out, My 5 has no subtitle support. ITV supports it on several on-demand shows, however similar to iPlayer, there are no subs on the live stream. Navigating on the Siri Remote with a swipe to reveal audio and subtitles doesn’t even exist in this app.

Subtitles…a mandatory part of the viewing experience

So what’s the big deal you may ask?

Subtitles are no longer a luxury item in TV programming. They are essential. Over the above their mandatory need for the hearing impaired, many people view subtitles in an effort to learn a foreign language or simply to enjoy a program being spoken in a non-English vocabulary. The lack of subtitles on streaming services means restricting a whole category of people from a simple daily practice.

Aside from the fact that it might be a violation of British and European regulations that are required on terrestrial TV or satellite services, broadcasters need to break the technical barriers preventing continual subtext support in the UK.

In this day and time as streaming services are growing at a subsonic pace, this obstacle should be a no-brainer to fix for broadcasters who have simply ignored its importance to viewers.

(Sebastian Szwarc (@Behinder) is a contributor to BESTAppleTV.com. He owns three (and growing) Apple TV devices watching various streaming feeds from all over the world – including from the U.K. – at his home in Poznań, Poland.)

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About the Author

Sebastian is a Mac journalist and podcast host based in Poznań, Poland. He is the founder and co-host of the podcast Pear 2 Pear, and currently the editor of MojMac.pl and Mój Mac Magazyn. A big movie fan, he talks about film music on Radio Poznań. He has previously worked for Apple-User.pl and the podcast Jabłecznik.

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