Why Is Everyone Watching TV With the Subtitles On?

From mumbling actors to TikTok junkies, theories abound about the surprising prevalence of closed captioning.

Pop Culture
4 min
Engrid Barnett
Engrid Barnett
Why Is Everyone Watching TV With the Subtitles On?
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Pop Culture

During the early days of film, text proved a must. Movies were silent, so dialogue delivery required the written word. The first intertitles did little more than fill in the blanks. That said, they also facilitated increasingly sophisticated storylines. By the 1930s, sound hit film, rendering intertitles obsolete. By the early 1970s, television paved the way for a new kind of screen text: the subtitle.

One of the first TV personalities to benefit from subtitles was Julia Child, famed for her lilting accent. Also known as closed captions, subtitles marked a welcome tool for accessibility. Whether an antidote for a hearing disability or difficult accents. In recent years, subtitle use has exploded. Why is everyone watching TV with the subtitles on?

Keep reading for the skinny on closed captioning and why so many people love it.

Subtitles by the Numbers

A recent study by YouGov revealed something astonishing. Sixty-one percent of media viewers aged 18 to 25 use subtitles, hearing impairment or not. And the stats don’t end there.

Netflix reported in 2022 that 40 percent of their global users keep subtitles on all the time. Moreover, 80 percent of viewers switch on their closed captioning at least once a month!

There are many different reasons for this. But they all point to the same reality. Today’s TV viewers are reading (as much as listening to) their fave programs and movies.

Mumbling Actors

Theories abound about why people worldwide increasingly opt for closed captions. At the top of the list are practical considerations like mumbling actors. Ironically, as sound technology has improved, actors have become increasingly lazy about delivering easy-to-hear lines.

Gunter Sics, the sound mixer on Moulin Rouge and Thor: Ragnarok , explains, “There’s a new style with young actors — it’s like they just talk to themselves. That might work in a cinema, but not necessarily when it gets into people’s lounge rooms.”

But this new breed of actors shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. As it turns out, the popularity in subtitles stems from a perfect storm of auditory, technological, and cultural influences.

Sophisticated Audio

For starters, new sound tech has muddied the waters of audio. Once upon a time, TVs relied on small, tinny speakers to emit sound. Sure, you didn’t enjoy a surround sound experience. But the treble focus worked fantastically for delivering the human voice.

Today, the sound focus is much broader. Dialogue alone isn’t enough. Now, movie makers want sound effects for everything, from the turning of a doorknob to the sound of a barking dog in the distance.

Coupled with soundtrack music and other potential ambient noise, today’s on-screen entertainment contains a cacophony of noise. And all of it is vying for a viewer’s attention. Often simultaneously.

Bad Setups

Besides background noise and mumbling actors, people must also contend with sophisticated audio systems. These can be difficult to set up.

Unlike the tiny speakers of old that required no special installation, today’s sound systems are sophisticated. When you get them wrong, dialogue and audio balance suffer.

Old television stand on white background

Sics argues, “[A sound system’s] various frequencies bounce off the walls and confuse what you’re listening to. If you set it up in a room with no carpet and just floorboards, it’s going to sound like crap.”

Growing Up on Social Media

Practical considerations aside, closed captions also appeal to a generation raised on social media. Because of apps like Instagram and TikTok, young people worldwide are accustomed to watching captioned videos.

Some social media mavens claim they can’t focus on the content they’re watching without words at the bottom of the screen. Others argue subtitles help them catch pithy one-liners and scenes that make for good memes. Or they appreciate subtitling fails worth a good laugh. For example, Real Housewives is infamous for flashing the words “speaking indistinctly” over dialogue.

Still another group appreciates the extra information now provided by subtitles. What does this additional info include? Everything from featured song titles to nearly inaudible sounds like off-camera dialogue, scratching noises, etc.

Subtitles Are Here to Stay

Captions help with thick accents. They allow viewers to watch videos quietly to avoid disturbing those around them. Subtitles are handy when dealing with noisy appliances and ambient noise from airports and busy thoroughfares.

Of course, not everyone’s thrilled by the steady ribbon of text at the bottom of the screen. Among the most disgruntled individuals are sound techs for TV shows and movies. After all, they put their hearts and souls into crafting engaging audio backgrounds to complement on- and off-screen action.

They despise the thought of people turning off the volume and turning on the captions. “It feels awful,” Sics confirms. He believes it’s time to address sound quality issues impacting how people hear (or don’t hear) movies and programs. But there may be more to it than audibility. Jason Kehe , writing for Wired , asserts that seeing is believing. Apparently, this applies to characters’ words, too.

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