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Subtitles and alternate language tracks in iTunes movies: A lie?

Jump ahead to 19:25 in the MacWorld 2008 keynote video and you can see and hear Apple CEO Steve Jobs discuss a new feature in iPhone/iPod touch 1.3.1. "When I'm watching films now, I've got two buttons here (Figure)," he says. "One shows me all the chapters; I can navigate through the video by chapters (Figure). And the other, if the video contains alternate language tracks or subtitles, I can turn those off and on and select the language as well (Figure)." As he says this, a clip of the Pixar movie "Ratatouille" appears, complete with both alternate language tracks and subtitles.

This sounds like a great feature. And as long-time readers of my old Nexus blog and other writings no doubt know, it's the final step towards realizing a dream of sorts: My son, Mark, is deaf. And though he utilizes cochlear implants to hear, he relies on subtitles and captioning for movies and TV shows. Right now, all of the digitally purchasable and rentable movies that are available online are absolutely worthless to him. How wonderful would it be if these movies had subtitles? It would open up a whole new world of choice for him.

Excited by this development, I immediately rented "Ratatouille" from iTunes, since that was the movie Jobs used to demonstrate this feature in the keynote. But no subtitles or alternate language tracks are available in this film, as has been my experience with digital downloads in the past. Perhaps you need to access these features from the iPhone, as he demonstrated? Nope: That doesn't work either (I see the Chapters button, but not the Language button he mentioned). OK, well maybe it's just the rental. So I purchased the movie. Again, same thing: No subtitles. No alternate language tracks. It doesn't work on the PC, the Mac, or the iPhone. I tested all three.

So what gives? Was this a lie? Is it something that's going to be rolled out in the future? And if so, how will I know that it's available? Or do I literally need to encode this movie myself--illegally, if I understand the letter of the law--via DVD and somehow embed this functionality into the movie I create? And if that really is the answer, why wasn't this made clear during the keynote?

As it turns out, you can in fact rent movies on iTunes with closed captioning. But the number of captioned movies on the service is woefully small. More important, they're almost impossible to find. Here's how you do it: Open iTunes and navigate to iTunes Store. Enable the iTunes Browser (CTRL+B), which is almost certainly not on by default: This provides a text-based way to navigate the store. Under Charts, click on Movies to reveal a list of genres on the right. Then, scan the list of movies on the bottom, looking for a tiny "CC" graphic: Those are the captioned movies (Figure).

As noted above, the number of captioned movies is pathetic. There are exactly 5 captioned movies in the "Kids" genre, only one of which my son would be slightly interested in. Other genres are even worse: There are no captioned movies at all in "Horror" and only 4 in "Action & Adventure." I bought one of those, "The Italian Job" (the 2003 version) to test.

The results were disappointing. Sure enough, in iTunes you can enable and disable captions, though there are no non-English language tracks or subtitles available. And because of this, presumably, you don't see a way to turn on captioning when you play the movie on the iPhone" The Chapters button appears, but the Languages button does not. To actually enable captioning, you have to dive into the iPhone's Settings utility. You can't do it on the fly. And once it comes on (it takes a while), the text is so small it's almost unreadable. Irritating.

Why is Apple trumpeting a feature that basically doesn't exist and is so sporadically implemented that you literally have to luck into buying the right movies? And why do I know that some Apple fanatic is going to write me and tell me this isn't technically a lie because, after all, Jobs never explicitly said captioning was available in Ratatouille even though he used that as the example? (Tools.) And here's a question I'd really like answered: Are there actually any iTunes movies with alternate language tracks available? And if so, how do we find them?

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