People who don’t watch subtitled foreign-language films are often dismissed as uncultured, but imagine trying to get into Claire Denis or Chantal Akerman without being able to focus on the action and dialogue at the same time. As a visually impaired cinephile, my nemesis is a white subtitle with no drop shadow, sheared of an outline — the words onscreen blend into the background too easily. There have been countless times when I was watching a film at Angelika Film Center or Lincoln Center and had to give up on reading the dialogue text altogether. No understanding of the plot, just vibes.
For many viewers, the right color, size, and font of subtitles make all the difference, and the need for subtitle options goes beyond aesthetic preference. Subtitles are the bridge between cultures, bypassing the barriers of language in order to spread television and cinema around the world. Here in America, English subtitles have introduced us to a number of talented directors, from Bong Joon Ho to Pedro Almodóvar (even though English is pretty boring compared to most other languages, and we should really use Duolingo more often). Yet subtitle customization rarely receives the attention it deserves, especially — and, often, surprisingly — among the many new streaming services cropping up. So much money, so few options.
Since I don’t want all you streamers at home to suffer inferior subtitles the way I so regularly do, I checked out the caption options offered on the websites of the nine big players — Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+, Prime Video, Peacock, Paramount+, Apple TV+, Discovery+ — plus TubiTV, Mubi, and the Criterion Channel, three smaller services I use and like. (God, there are so many of these now. Can we just bring cable back? I’m so tired. Ugh.) I judged their overall user-friendliness on most browsers on a few factors: ease of access (how long it takes to find the subtitle settings), font options (how much you can change how the text looks), and color options (how much you can change the colors of the text and text backgrounds). Then, I rated them on a scale of one (“That’s it?”) to five (“Thank you, king!!!”). And as you know, critics are always right.
Overall Legibility Score: 5/5
Paramount+ is an underrated service that deserves a bit more hype than it has been given. Not only does it have new programming from the studios under the Paramount umbrella, but it plays on our overgrowing nostalgia by including classic Nicktoons that millennials and Gen-Xers have been craving for years. In addition to its great selection, it has several subtitle options that you can access right there on the video player. You can change font size, type, color, weight, and add an optional background color.
Discovery+ has good options right there on the player: text size, text color, background color, font, font size — the works. I have no idea what this service is or what’s on it, but at least you won’t have any problem reading what people are saying!
As with most things, the Mouse House has this market cornered. Disney+ flexes its giant budget with an embarrassment of riches: size options, color options, font types, background colors — the whole shebang. You can even change the opacity of both the font and the colors, giving you the option to choose how much the text shows up in relation to the background. But beware: When you hover over the subtitle square, pay attention to the little gear that pops up in the upper-right-hand corner. That’s where all the settings are. It loses points for being very easy to miss.
Netflix, arguably the most popular streaming service, has the options if you look for them. On the video player itself, you can choose from a number of different languages for your subtitles. Unfortunately, changing anything else takes some needlessly difficult digging. On a phone, computer, or tablet, you have to click on “Account,” scroll down to your viewing profile, then click “Subtitle Appearance.” (Plus, if you are casting or streaming on a television set — I use a Chromecast and a Roku — you have to make sure to set your changes online before you sit down to watch anything.) But once you get there, you can change the subtitle font type, color, and size. There’s also the option to add a drop shadow to the text, something that can make it easier to distinguish the subtitle from the rest of the action on the screen.
Peacock makes you do the same digging Netflix does, but once you get there, the options are good. Shame about that name, though. Can’t do anything about it now, I suppose.
Hulu has great subtitle options. On a computer or a tablet, you can change the size, color, font type, shadow, and background of the subtitles on the player itself without having to go into your account settings. There’s one hitch, though: You can’t see a preview of the text while you’re changing it. This means users have to go back into the settings multiple times before they find a text presentation that works for them. Seems like an odd thing to leave out.
HBO Max makes it much easier to change the subtitle options. On a computer or tablet, you can change the size, color, font type, shadow, and background of the subtitles on the player itself without having to go into your account settings. Well, for most films. One of the great things about HBO Max is its selection of both Turner Classic Movies and certain art-house selects from the Criterion Channel. If you watch a film from the Criterion Collection on HBO Max, those changes don’t apply. So if you want to watch something fancy, you’re going to have to deal with plain white text. But if you want to watch old episodes of Dexter’s Laboratory, you’re good. Make the text magenta if you want to!
The free streaming service TubiTV has options to change the subtitle font size and background settings. Bare-minimum stuff, but it’s more than Apple TV+ and Prime Video. The main hitch is that, like Netflix and Peacock, you need to go into your account settings to make changes. Otherwise, I have nothing snarky to say, because this service is free and thus is the People’s Streamer.
Amazon Prime Video
Of all the big streamers, Amazon Prime has the least options for subtitle customization. There are five font-size options and four presets with only three text-color options and only one background color. But at least they’re easy to find: right there on the player while you watch from your phone or tablet. But for a company with that much money, you would think it would be more thorough.
Of all the services mentioned, I love the little art-house streamers the most. But they also have the fewest options. Mubi, especially, has such an amazing selection of international films. We only get two choices — regular- or large-size text — which isn’t ideal for services with such a large catalogue of foreign-language films.
While Apple TV+ does have an impressive number of language options, it has very limited options for subtitle customization in the player. You have to exit the video and go all the way over to the settings for accessibility options. Once again, I ask, All this money and you can’t do this one thing??? I’m steamed.
The Criterion Channel
The Criterion Channel is one of the best streamers out there, providing people around the world with rare films, curated by people who really care about film. It even offers a portion of its catalogue on HBO Max, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, there are no options to customize subtitles. There is only white text. I know that cinephile streamers are labors of love, so it’s hard to be mad at them for not having everything we can expect from a place like Netflix, but I do think it’s worth asking why this is such a huge oversight. Access isn’t just about putting the films on a streamer — people have to be able to understand what’s going on onscreen.
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