Why aren’t all DVDs captioned?

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Monday, 11 March 2013 17:21pm

From VHS to video on demand, the way we watch movies is rapidly evolving. Our project manager for DVD, Ally Woodford, explores the key trends impacting on the medium and how the needs of Deaf and hearing impaired viewers can be met now and well into the future.

Recently, popular British blog, i heart subtitles, had a post on the process of producing accessible DVDs and the ongoing issues around the format. Its author, Dawn Jones, addresses some of the issues blocking the road to 100 per cent of DVDs being captioned in the UK.

In Australia, there is no legislation or regulation to guarantee captions on video content. It is up to the discretion of DVD distributors to provide access features. Currently, approximately 60 per cent of new release movies are closed captioned. So what accounts for this gap?


Major distributors, particularly those that are vertically integrated from cinema to DVD such as Sony and Universal, always have higher rates of access on their DVD releases. They work with bigger budgets, have better systems in place and can often work from caption files from the cinema release. These well-oiled machines have a certain expectation around them.

But for every big name distributor there are several small, independent distribution companies which have different video sources and smaller budgets. These distributors may only release a handful of titles each year. Their work will involve producing the discs, designing a cover, dubbing and selling. The end result is a no-frills release, with no added extras for which the DVD format allows. It is this end of the industry which largely holds captioning levels at 60 per cent in Australia.

Changing formats

With the introduction of DVD came extra space. Not only was there the movie but enough room for director’s commentary, blooper reels, deleted scenes, foreign language subtitles, captions and audio description. Despite the potential, all these features end up competing for space. This increased space has increased accessibility, although it has not solved things completely.

Regional issues

In Australia we have a handful of distributors who caption their videos, regardless of origin. This has meant that movies produced in the USA, the UK and elsewhere have ended up with captions in Region 4 (Australia, New Zealand, Oceania and South America) but not in their home country. Conversely, we have found that on average 10 per cent of new release DVDs are available with captions overseas but not in Australia. With multi-region DVDs becoming widely available, people can now rectify this by ordering an accessible version of their DVD online.


This is an area where Australia’s access advocates have hofad great success. A number of years ago the Australian Home Entertainment Distributors Association (AHEDA), which represents most distribution companies, introduced a uniform labelling system for closed captions and audio   description. DVD ofpackaging now carries standard logos and terminology to communicate which access features are included. While not all distributors are AHEDA members, I have noticed other distributors adopt the labels.

Online purchasing

While the labelling system has worked well locally, the trend for DVD purchasing to cross national borders is, as suggested by Jones, a step backwards for accessibility. It is rare to find an online store which identifies access features and even rarer to find one which allows users to filter search results. Amazon UK, which ships to Australia, regularly identifies access features and provides captions and audio description as a search criteria. Frustratingly, Amazon’s US site does not include these features.

Specialist genres

Documentary, education, sporting and music titles are far less likely to be captioned than entertainment DVDs. This is particularly problematic for education, as multimedia is being used in Australia’s classrooms more and more.

One way of improving this could be through the classification system. In Australia, education titles are exempt from classification under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995. As a way of increasing access to education, providing captions and audio description could be a condition of gaining exemption. This would be similar to Screen Australia’s captioning and audio description policy which makes providing access features a condition of funding.

Beyond DVD

While many would think that the cloud allows for limitless extras, including access features, the trend in video on demand services is really a reversion back to the days of VHS where only the main movie is offered.

In Australia, where few video on demand providers have opened shop, access features are rarely provided. The Apple iTunes Store is the only service which provides captions, and only for 15 to 20 per cent of videos. Audio description has so far only been available for a couple of titles on iTunes worldwide.

In the USA, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 states that any video which was broadcast on television with captions must be made available with captions online. It is hoped that we will see a flow-on effect of this legislation internationally.

We’ve come a long way from the days of specialist VHS tapes being available through video stores and libraries. The hard work done by activists over the past two decades has achieved great things. The move to online delivery presents new challenges and provides better ways for distributors to cater to their customers. It’s time to seize the opportunity so that access is a priority in this revolution.

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