If you’ve ever had trouble just reading captions (especially on DVD), it’s probably not your fault. The fonts suck.

Have you ever wondered why so much captioning in the U.S. and Canada SHOUTS AT YOU IN CAPITAL LETTERS?

It’s because the original decoder fonts – from way back in 1980 – didn’t have descenders, the parts of the letters g·y·p·q·j that extend below the baseline. Those letters were scrunched into a small space; they were hard to read in the first place because of low resolution; and they were easy to confuse with similar letters like e and g. As a result, somebody decided that all capitals was less illegible. At the time, that was probably correct.

But ever since caption decoders became mandatory in the 1990s, TV manufacturers have been free to use whatever font they choose in their built-in decoder chips. We aren’t stuck with the single font in old external caption decoders anymore. Many or most fonts have descenders now, and there isn’t any reason – at all – to use all-caps captioning. But many companies still do. Even captioners who usually work in mixed case can sometimes be ordered by their clients (like a major movie studio or a major U.S. TV network) to caption in capital letters.

(In case you’re wondering, no, it isn’t “just as easy” to read extended text in all capitals. But research shows that people can get used to all-caps reading, and the reading-speed penalty eventually levels off and doesn’t get any worse.)

What about HDTV?

In HDTV captioning, in theory you have eight fonts to choose from, but in practice you really only have four. Virtually no effort has been put into designing and testing fonts for HDTV captioning. The fonts you’re reading on HDTV are usually fonts that are used for printed text. But reading off a screen isn’t the same as reading a printed page.

Captioning of DVDs has its own problems. You can use subpictures to create any kind of captions, subtitles, or karaoke you like. (Subpictures are bitmaps, or a matrix of dots. Those same subpictures make up your menus, too.) But the pixels are low resolution, they’re usually one colour, and, weirdly, they have different shapes in different video formats. (And those pixels are never squares or circles. Have you ever tried to draw a letter like O or a using rectangular Lego bricks? That’s what we’re dealing with here.)

We have a separate project underway to design and test new fonts for captioning. But it isn’t going very well.