HBO Max Subtitles Need To Get With the Program

Athena ScalziI, like many others, have been watching The Last of Us on HBO Max. I have also been watching it with subtitles, and I’m shocked at how garbage they are. You would think that such a huge, expensive, and widely-anticipated show would cater better to its subtitle-using audience, but you’d be severely disappointed.

What do I mean by “bad” subtitles, though? How can subtitles be bad, and what would good ones look like? I’m glad you asked! I was frustrated by the subtitles for The Last of Us, because they left out entire words on several occasions, they don’t indicate who is speaking, or in what tone anyone says anything, they don’t include things like sighing, gasping, exclaiming, or include any background conversation. They also include no SFX, which means no “monster screeching”, “zombie clicking”, “guns shooting”, “explosions”! How are you going to leave out the zombie noises entirely, in a zombie show?!

Aside from all this, I’m also upset about the lack of choices when it comes to the subtitles themselves. Unlike Amazon Prime, on HBO Max you can’t choose the size or transparency of the subtitles. Amazon Prime gives you four choices of font size, as well as the choice to make the background of the subtitles opaque or solid. These are important aspects of subtitles! And there’s zero choice of this on HBO Max.

So, I started to wonder if other shows/movies on HBO Max were just as bad, or if it was just their newest, most popular, biggest budget show that had shitty subtitles.

I turned on Teen Titans to see how they compared. For Teen Titans, I was surprised by the fact that the subtitles were all in caps lock. Why would you ever put subtitles in nothing but caps?! It also did not indicate tone, who was speaking, etc.

Next, I tried The Book of Life. This one was actually a little better. It indicated when someone was singing rather than speaking by putting a music note before the line, included background conversation, and showed when a character sighed, grunted, etc. The subtitles on The Book of Life were weirdly delayed though, not by much, but enough that I noticed it.

Following that, I tried South Park. Again, no indication of which character was speaking, or in what tone. How are you going to watch South Park without knowing who is speaking sarcastically?! It’s important stuff!

Finally, I tried HBO Max’s big seller, Game of Thrones. At first, I was happy that it would specify who was speaking, but it was short lived, as it was completely inconsistent. Sometimes it would say who was speaking, then for the next five times someone spoke it wouldn’t. It was occasional at best. Plus, there was a huge mix of caps lock VS not caps lock. It was very strange.

All this is to say, HBO Max needs better options for their subtitles, and better ACTUAL SUBTITLES. STOP LEAVING WORDS OUT ENTIRELY.

The fact that a 100-million-dollar show has fucking garbage ass subtitles says a lot about how much they care about accessibility. People who use subtitles deserve just as good of a viewing experience as non-users, and deserve the same amount of information that non-users get. whether it be background conversation, SFX, or indication of tone.

Do fucking better, HBO.


43 Comments on “HBO Max Subtitles Need To Get With the Program”

  1. I’m so glad you posted this, I have a slight hearing loss and depend on subtitles with regularity and was very put off by the attempts in The Last of Us.

  2. Hi Athena, it probably won’t address all of your concerns, but have you tried viewing HBO Max using a different device? I have found that the subtitle experience is quite different when using my Roku than it is when viewing a streaming service via the app on my Xbox. Amazon Prime in particular seems to offer fewer viewing options in terms of size, opacity, etc. on the Xbox. Probably won’t affect that actual text, but you might find one device or another easier to at least read the subtitles.

  3. THANK YOU, Athena! As a hard-of-hearing person I rely on subtitles for everything and this problem annoys the crap out of me.

    Sometimes you get a choice between plain “captions/subtitles” and “SDH captions” (“Subtitles for Deaf and Hearing-Impaired”, I think). Always pick the SDH if they’re available, they have a miniscule chance of being more accurate, and they more often include SFX and music indicators.

    Although I am grateful our Raku doodad has its own captions settings that (SOMETIMES) operate independently of the streaming channel’s, it’s uneven at best.

    Content Producers, LISTEN UP: “NO, AI is NOT yet ready to do in-line captioning, so KNOCK THAT SH*T OFF and get actual human beings to actually do captions. In fact, get human beings who SPEAK THE DIALECT to do it, so that you don’t get the amusing but jarring effect when some American captioner applies an American word where a British English (or worse – Scots or Geordie or Cockney dialect!) word is actually being spoken.”

    This is not rocket science, people. As noted on the Vox article here:
    production processes and audio techniques are making captions/subtitles more valuable to an ever-increasing share of the audience. Not just us geezers and the D/H community.

    Ultimately services that can do a good, consistent job providing quality captioning will grow their audience and their market share.

    So, YAY on you, Athena, for speaking out on this.

  4. To add to my previous comment, HBO has a whole help page on subtitles and accessibility settings for various devices here: You may find that subtitles (for some shows, at least) will look different if you are just looking for a translation as opposed to needing subtitles because you are hearing impaired.

  5. As someone who is deaf, I totally agree!! I have depended on captions for as long as I had access to TVs with caption support.

    I have a running joke where “CC” actually stands for “close-enough captions”. It’s a lifetime irritant.

    Here’s hoping someone is able to influence HBO to make improvements!

  6. For what it’s worth, you can override some app defaults when watching through a MacOS device and attached monitors. Systems Settings; Accessibility; Captions Accessibility. Also lets you build a custom CC config.

  7. I could be completely wrong about this but…subtitling and closed captioning are two slightly different things.

    Subtitles = only spoken words.

    Closed Captioning = that plus references to all sound FX and often soundtrack music as well.

    I’m the opposite of you as I prefer the minimal presence of subtitles and don’t want the music or sfx referenced.

    I think subtitles are sometimes produced straight from the script and thus are not exactly 1:1 to what is said on screen (due to minor improvisations by the actors). But yes, even subtitles should state who says what.

  8. I understand that this is disappointing. I have severe hearing loss, so I have CC on all of the time. So much of what you talked about is standard. They all are caplocked. They rarely do exclamations. Many of the scripted shows use earlier versions of the scripts to create the captions. It doesn’t usually change the context of what is actually being said. For real madness, try watching live TV with captioning!

  9. If you have a smart TV, you may be able to change default font size and appearance by going into Settings.

    (Amazon Fire television here. Changed the settings to Extra Large when spouse had trouble reading the default size the set came loaded with.)

  10. Thank you! I’m someone who relies on subtitles 90% of the time to understand what’s going on. There have been shows I didn’t bother going back to after the first or second episode because (1) the sound quality was abysmal and (2) the subtitles sucked.

    As the Vox article (linked above by Terry) alluded to, more and more people actually NEED to use subtitles to understand the shows simply because of the changes in technology. So, yeah… HBO needs to get its act together.

  11. @snowden – You are correct. “Closed Captions” or “SDH” are text for dialog plus sounds and music. Subtitles are ostensibly translations of the dialog for foreign language movies. Unfortunately, lazy content creators replace the latter with the former.
    There’s a very interesting-looking animated film on Amazon Prime called “Howl from Beyond the Fog”. Unfortunately, the dialog is in Japanese while the only option is “English [CC]”. It’s unwatchable in this form, with all of the music and sounds described.

  12. I don’t think it’s a problem unique to HBO.

    I tried watching the most recent Bond film on Amazon Prime, and much of the early dialog in the movie is in Spanish, and there NO subtitles at all. Maybe 5-10min into the movie I said F* it and stopped watching, because I had very little idea of what had been said to that point.

  13. Certain seasons of Arthur on PBS Kids had horrid captioning for what seems like good but flawed reasoning. They simplified and paraphrased all of the text so that a deaf child could following along at an age-appropriate reading level, but this means that a hearing person was not seeing exact text. Which is disappointing when so many children and adults use the see-hear aspect of captioning to learn to decode and read and speak English.

  14. Iain is entirely right. Subtitles are a poor second-best for the deaf; Closed captions should be what they need, and many times both are options on a DVD/Blu Ray. I don’t know about the streaming services.

    But I’m not deaf (much), I just often can’t make out the exact dialog. So subtitles are what I want. I know when the zombies are screaming incoherently.

  15. For the Last of Us, the big thing that I dislike about its captions is that it keeps showing the text from signs in the captions. If it were translating into a different language, it would make sense to me but it isn’t. Some of the captions for those signs just seem unnecessary. Like one said “Exit” because there was a exit sign in the shot.

    Outside of that show, I’ve seen captions censored. A character will swear, for example, and the word is not be present in the captions. I can understand needing some creative liberties if the dialog was too fast for the captions to keep up so they paraphrase, but I’ve seen straight up skipping swears or changing to a different word.

  16. YouTube gives more options than that. (And, if something like Critical Role can do professional, complete captions – always by “release”, at least mostly done the previous week when streamed – then there’s no excuse for other companies/services to not.)

  17. Best subtitles ever,

    Swedish chef makes popcorn shrimp off YouTube

    You’ll have to wait until about halfway through the video- it’s amazing

  18. Amazon Prime gives you four choices of subtitles? Who knew? Obviously not me, and we watch a LOT of stuff with subtitles. Actually, since most of our streaming is of foreign language shows, we really watch a lot of subtitles, and you’re right, a lot of them suck. Sometimes with shows like Money Heist or Squid Game, I would have to rerun it a few minutes and start again, after which the “missing” subtitles would suddenly pop up! WTF?

  19. I think you’re talking about closed captions rather than subtitles, though same language or different language is the only difference.

    Those sorts of things are always a trade off between getting it accurate and making it possible for an average person to read it all before the next one pops up. That may be the reason why things are missing. Making these things is a well developed profession and it is always possible, especially given current management, that they chose not to employ professionals.

    The HBO Max player has a LOT of issues. It isn’t as starkly awful as, say, Hidive’s, but that isn’t saying much. What particularly annoys me is the autoplay that cannot be turned off. I almost never want the next episode to start up automatically.

    But take heart! Soon you won’t have to be annoyed anymore because David Zaslov will memory-hole everything you want to watch and replace it all with ghosts, space aliens, and naked people in the woods programs.

  20. I don’t have HBO Max. But I do have a Roku tv and once I tried to do subtitles on a foreign film and it wouldn’t even let me. I even tried to use translate on my phone holding it near the tv, but that didn’t work. I had to figure out what they were saying on my own. At one point of the movie, I had to stop to look up a translation of a work. It was bad. Youtube does CC and sometimes they have the wrong words on there.

  21. HBO, like all streaming services, has no control over the captioning that comes with the film or series when they purchase it. That’s why you see such a wide difference in what is available between each film or series.

    The coding for those subtitles, and what can be done with them, is hard coded into the digital formatting of the product. It cannot be changed.

    If Amazon or HBO produced a given product, than they can, and should, require a better experience with these.

  22. You are absolutely correct on this. And for those folks making excuses for why it’s not HBOs fault, stop it. This is a public accomodations issue. Those of us with hearing loss are barred from consuming this content because the captions are garbage. “Game of Thrones” and “Last of Us” are produced by HBO. They have control of this content and captions are part of the content.
    Athena, you have a voice and a platform. Lead the charge on this!

  23. Lisa, you are absolutely correct. Both “Game of Thrones” and “Last of Us” were produced in-house so they had complete control over this and could have had the perfect captioning. They didn’t because their assholes.

  24. Fascinating and informative. Thank you so much for writing this post! I have hearing loss and have used closed captions for many years, and I know that broadcasters, whether cable, studios, streaming services, are required by law to provide closed captions. But apparently there is no clear standard on how well they must provide them. I do notice when some shows are better than others, although I have to say I haven’t noticed really terrible captioning, unless there is a word or two missing here and there. I also didn’t know that I could adjust the style of captioning on Amazon Prime, so thanks very much for that.

    I have converted several friends to watching with captions, because that way you get all the jokes, and often some very amusing sound descriptions as well, like Athena notes above.

  25. Excellent points. I watch with Closed Captioning whenever possible (watching Dark right now, and it’s done quite well) whenever available and subtitles when not, even when content is in English.

    At one point I was marveling over the distinctions the Star Wars captioners have for various robots. The same way they came up with new sounds for BB-8, they came up with distinct language for his noises so it’s clear which robot is “speaking” to non-hearing audience members.

  26. (Raises hand)

    Hi, mostly deaf person here who’s had to rely on closed captioning her whole life – and was born at a time when most programs on TV weren’t captioned. Legislation has managed to push captions/subtitles onto most shows on TV and the Internet, even if done at metaphorical gunpoint, but captioning quality is still a big problem, as you’ve seen. Missing words/phrases, the wrong words/phrases, captions too slow/fast, deliberately blanking out the cuss words (way to infantilize me, thanks), not captioning foreign languages or song lyrics (even in movies like “Pitch Perfect” where the songs are integral to the movie), etc. And still sometimes refusing to caption bonus content on DVDs/Blu-rays with the all important disclaimer “Some content on this disc may or may not be captioned…” so you don’t even know if the extras will be accessible until you’ve shelled out the money for it.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of closed craptioning. I actually canceled my Apple TV+ subscription because I couldn’t figure out how to enlarge the captions – the default size is tiny. I don’t have a severe visual impairment (yet), but you can actually have both a visual and hearing issue at the same time, which means if you can’t size up the text, it might as well not be there. It irks me to no end how half-assed the captioning job can be, on Major Movies and TV Shows, even!

    And the thing is… I know it can be done well, because so many shows manage to do a good job! It’s very frustrating to live life knowing that your ability to access content is still a roulette wheel…

  27. Hi – I haven’t read all the comments below so don’t know if this has been mentioned yet.
    Subtitles give you only what’s being said (or not!), closed captioning gives you what’s being said PLUS information such as “ominous music” or “crashing noise” and such.
    I have no hearing issues, but because so much of modern television is realistic, i.e. mumbled, I like to watch with subtitles/CC (closed captioning).
    I’m still really annoyed that I have been unable to find the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding with any CC or subtitles whatsoever. Ok, it’s about 20 years old, but this information could be added to dvds or bluerays considering what you have to pay for them. My elderly mother – who really can’t hear well – would really like to see AND hear the film :(

  28. Cat said: “The coding for those subtitles, and what can be done with them, is hard coded into the digital formatting of the product. It cannot be changed.”

    Well, that’s simply not true. I can add a subtitle track to my copy of a DVD (it’s a bit too complicated for me to make the subtitle track, but I can find them online and merge them with the other tracks), so it’s not impossible — it may be contractually disallowed (just as it’s no doubt illegal for me to do that in the US), in which case once again it’s HBO’s fault as they wouldn’t sign those contracts if they cared about accomodating the hearing impaired.

  29. I’ve been watching K-dramas steadily on Netflix, where I was able to adjust the subtitle size and color. K-dramas are made to be subtitled, and many of them have the actors speak in slow phrases with pauses to give the audience time to read and look both. I prefer subtitles to voice-dubbing, which is sometimes an option.

  30. I’m in Canada and don’t have HBO Max (its programming is licensed to a different streaming service up here) so I can’t really comment on its specific functionality. But as others have noted, Subtitles and Closed Captions are two different animals, with different purposes. It seems like what you’d prefer is Closed Captions, which contain environmental sounds and (often) speaker attribution as well. Subtitles on the other hand are only dialog, by design, and are primarily meant for translating content in other languages. Or, if you are me, for understanding what the hell is going on in Tenet.

    That being said, if CC is not available on Max, this is absolutely a fail on HBO’s part, and its rests entirely with them. When it comes to OTT content, if you have to choose to support CC or Subtitles, CC should always come first, for accessibility purposes. Subtitles are a “nice to have” for english language content in english language markets. There are no technical impediments to supporting CC, just budget and priority, and content producers can be compelled to provide CC files with their program as a condition of license. Considering upwards of 10% of the audience requires accessibility tools in some form, whether it’s closed captions, described video, screen reader-optimized text, or other, it’s a real lapse, on their part.

  31. My experience with subtitles/closecaptioning is that they only name the speaker if the speaker is off camera during the line. You’re supposed to be able to watch who’s speaking at the same time as you’re reading the words. Good luck with that.
    Also, I would always prefer just the words, but people should definitely have the option of all the sounds or just the words. It’s most definitely an accessibility issue and you’d think something as expensive as even the cheapest movies and TV shows could find room for some decent closecaptioning in their budget.
    Also also, my main use for subtitles/closecaptioning is so I can understand British TV, and I am dismayed by how often I (not at all British) can recognize that whoever did the printed words had no idea what the speaker was saying. Yay me, I guess?

  32. Yet another hearing impaired person here.

    I don’t know if it’s worse, but the LACK of subtitles can be equally infuriating! I’m looking at you, Disney streaming! I don’t remember if it was a Star Wars or Avengers series that we were watching, but quite frequently there were no subtitles available.

    I think Disney just might be able to afford subtitle production before the show is aired, and if not, build it into the schedule and MAKE SURE IT IS EFFING DONE!

  33. Concerning identifying the characters who are speaking: most shows that I have CC on for will name the character if they’re not on screen at the moment they start talking. If they are on screen, the captioning doesn’t say, because I guess they figure you can see their lips move.

    Having them identified in this way is very convenient for identifying characters whose names haven’t been given in the dialogue yet.

  34. Hey, me again. Regarding the rendering of sub-titles/closed captions (let’s assume for this issue they’re the same thing.) A lot of this depends on your device, and the program running on it. So my Apple TV has system settings for font size, colour and background colour and any streaming app should obey those settings.
    Google, Roku, and smart TVs may behave differently, but they all should have a settings option for on-screen text. You just have to poke around for it or do an Internet search.

  35. I am watching The Last of Us on Crave (broadcast, not streaming) in Canada and the closed captioning is of good quality. Off screen speaker dialogue referenced to character, environmental sounds and tone, music mood. I did not notice any inaccurate dialogue or missing words, if there was any it was minor. (I watch with CC and use it extensively. I tend to notice that.) I think it is pretty unlikely Crave did the close captioning themselves though, it almost certainly was produced or contracted out by HBO. As others have mentioned, there’s a significant distinction between subtitles and closed captioning. It sounds very much like HBO Max is displaying English subtitles, not closed captioning, but I can verify good quality English closed captioning definitely exists for The Last of Us. I would check that link that Kevin Grierson provided above, it shows that different streaming devices have different instructions for making sure you get CC/SDH vs subtitles without CC/SDH. There appears to be an explicit setting to turn SDH off but leaving English subtitles on for some streaming devices. I strongly suspect that’s what is being presented to you

  36. i have really good hearing still despite numerous Grateful dead Concerts but about 20 years ago i started watching British Television shows mainly Detective series many of which were truly excellent but i found i needed subtitles to fully understand them and started becoming dependent upon subtitles!!!!!
    And YES the quality varies to such a degree Netflix is generally good Google Play is garbage they need to be turned on for each episode you can not just turn them on and leave them on!!!!!
    Living in Canada i have no experience with HBO but I even need subtitles for LETTTERKENNY a Canadian TV series my best friend just got me hooked on while I await Star Trek Picard
    Star Trek Discovery
    Star Trek Strange New Worlds which really needs more than 10 episodes a year!!!!!!!
    The Blacklist and that about sums up my am impatiently waiting for SHOWS!!!!!!!

  37. Actually I forgot to mention that you could really help my waiting for these shows by maybe writing something as good as your Old Mans War Series or your rebooting of H Beam Piper who I personally think is as Good as RAH Arthur C Clarke Asimov ETC!!!!!!
    Thank You that was a truly unexpected gift!!!!!

  38. As someone who relies on subtitles, THANK YOU for saying this! The lack of sounds in the information makes it obvious that they care not at all about accessibility for the disabled, only for those who are reliant on another language. I’m looking forward to trying this show anyway, but as a fan of Our Flag Means Death…..seriously, HBO Max needs to get with the program.

  39. I wanted to echo what @Graham posted above. In the case of The Last of Us specifically, I think this is actually a case of user error. I checked just now and there are separate subtitle tracks for CC/SDH vs English subs. The former is the one you want.

    As an example of a specific difference, here’s how the two tracks treat someone talking over the radio at ~6m50s in episode 1 differently:

    -Eng sub track just has “…continued disturbances in Jakarta,” in italics, but no identification of speaker.
    -CC/SDH has the same thing, but prefaces it with an unitalicized “Reporter (on radio):”.

    I’m not going to list a whole bunch of examples, you can check it out for yourself.

    Still, though this case specific case appears like it might not be as bad as you’ve painted it, there are certainly plenty of times when subs have the problems you describe (or no subs exist at all!), and I’m someone who tends to turn some type of sub on by default. In fact, watching as much anime as I have over the years, it’s hard not to notice that fansubs are often much better than the subs that are put out by the official distributors, which can be riddled with truly ridiculous errors and sometimes even read like a machine translation (which I’m sure is what some of them are).

    It’s probably because I’ve dealt with so many truly horrendous subs that I find it hard to get too worked up about it anymore. I only have so much righteous rage in me (it’s a tiring emotion to continually channel), and so I tend to direct it toward other things…

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