Naturally, I went to iTunes, checked for the movie, and indeed it was available in the store. However, while the overall ratings for the movie itself were high, all of the top-rated reviews had user frustration and warnings in them:
Now those are some frustrated customers.
As any good fan of foreign films (or kung-fu movies) knows, dubbing can really ruin the experience of a great foreign-language film. Subtitles are definitely the way to go. I first assumed that there’s no way that Apple would ruin the experience of a great foreign-language film by deliberately dubbing it, so is the lack of multiple-language tracks and multiple-language subtitles a technological limitation affecting movies sold in the iTunes Store or the Quicktime platform?
Not only does iTunes, the iTunes Store, and Quicktime support both of these features, but to my surprise, Steve Jobs was such a fan of these features that he demonstrated them at the MacWorld 2008 keynote (a brief subtitles / multiple languages movie example starts at 19:25). But it seems that to the disappointment of the diverse communities that enjoy subtitles in their movies, which ranges from foreign-language film fans, to the needs of the hearing-impaired, to people who just need to mute the movie’s audio and still follow the storyline, the number of movies in the iTunes Store that have subtitles available is extremely low. Here’s a quick survey of 3 genres in the iTunes Store, which I reviewed by using the Browse button in the iTunes store and looking for the “CC” logo:
Action & Adventure: 24 (out of 1,047 movies)
Classics: 2 (out of 127 movies)
Foreign: 0 (out of 64 movies)
Here’s a older screenshot demonstrating the state of subtitles in movies available in the iTunes Store — it hasn’t gotten much better as of the date of this blog post.
On top of this, the movie Let The Right One In was produced by Magnolia Pictures, which is owned by Mark Cuban, who sold Broadcast.com to my alma mater, Yahoo! for several billion dollars back in the Web 1.0 era. Mark and his team at AudioNet/Broadcast.com were some of the early pioneers in streaming media, and Mark is someone who firmly has his eye on the future of media.
Since I’ve given up Cable TV, Netflix, DVD rentals, and most other traditional video distribution channels in favor of the iTunes Store, I’m a serious customer and proponent of the iTunes Store, and in general it offers me a great user experience as a consumer. It’s replaced my old TiVo for being the place that I head to for acquiring archived content that I can watch offline (and lately I’ve been hearing an increasing roar of buzz that installing Boxee on my Apple TV is the way to go for watching free streaming web content).
That’s exactly why this issue seems so jarring to me — adding multiple language and subtitle support to and iTunes Store movie should be just an issue of encoding additional closed-captioning data and alternate audio track data from the DVD or other source material, and the studios are already (in many cases) used to providing this content to DVD manufacturers.
This one of the my favorite value propositions of digital media: It gives consumers the freedom to download once, and then choose when they want to watch their content, what device they want to watch it on, and how they’d like to view it — dubbed, with subtitles, with endless commentary by the creators, or just in its original format as the directors intended.
So why ARE subtitles and alternate language tracks missing from so many iTunes Store movies — is it the studios or Apple responsible for this data not being present in the movies that they’re selling?4 Comments