Arts·Group Chat

The difference between subtitles and closed captions — and why more TV viewers are choosing to use them today

Why are more and more viewers turning on the subtitles to watch their favourite shows? Culture writer Devin Gordon and Korean pop culture scholar Michelle Cho dive into the latest viewer habit shaking up television.

Devin Gordon and Michelle Cho explain why audiences are using closed captioning to watch their favourite shows

A still from Stranger Things Season 4, Vol. 2 with the closed captions on.
A still from Stranger Things Season 4, Vol. 2 with the closed captions on. (Netflix)

Increasing numbers of young viewers are turning on the subtitles when they watch their favourite shows. 

Devin Gordon, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and Michelle Cho, a Korean pop culture, film, and media studies scholar, joined host Elamin Abdelmahmoud to get to the bottom of what's driving this trend — and what it suggests about the future of TV as a form.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Elamin: Michelle, we should be honest because we're saying "subtitles," but what we're really talking about are closed captions, right? They're designed to make TV and movies more accessible for people who are hard of hearing. Subtitles translate dialogue in a foreign language. That's a totally different thing. But I guess we should talk about the fact that there's been this rise of foreign language TV in North America thanks to streaming. Do you think that's kind of helped us get used to the idea of seeing text on the screen?

Michelle: Yes. I mean, that's definitely my theory as someone who studies the globalization of media, and how people are breaking boundaries between culture, language, even national media markets when they're tuning in to different stuff. So yeah, I think it's really important to clarify the distinction between the different forms of text based translation that we see nowadays.… [Subtitles are] meant to be viewed with the original soundtrack language. It's like an art of translation where you're really trying to capture the meaning of what's happening. And then closed captions correspond to the English language dub of the show. And so that's why they can be so different — because with dubbing, you have to match the mouth movement and the timing of what you're seeing on screen. And so there can be much more kind of leeway in how you're changing the meaning of the original soundtrack.

Sometimes I think that people who are frustrated with how things are being translated, they're mistaking the closed captioning for the subtitles. But all of this is just kind of a prompt for us to really think about how complicated translation is…. I totally agree that there is something distracting your eye when you're looking at subtitles, and so maybe you're not fully tuned in to the artistic vision of the media producer, but at the same time … there's always been this kind of discrepancy between the artist's vision, the artist's intention and then what the audience gets from it, right? So what the work actually is, is somewhere in the middle of that negotiation.

Elamin: Michelle, can I also just ask you about the availability of text on screen? Because in a North American context, it's kind of limited, right? It's mostly functional — it's subtitles, closed captions or, like, if two people are texting each other, you might see the text messages that they're sending. But there are a lot of other places that use a lot more text on screen almost as a kind of commentary on what's going on, on the thing that you're actually watching. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Michelle: Yeah, so in Asian media, there's this long tradition of using onscreen text in very deliberate ways to kind of add humor or commentary. This happens especially in the genre of variety shows, which are kind of analogous, but of course different to reality TV in North America. So often the text on screen, it's not someone speaking or it's not attributable to any voice that you're hearing, or person you're seeing on the screen. It's like this third consciousness that's kind of poking fun.

Elamin: Like, "Look at this silly guy and what he just did!" You know?

Michelle: Exactly, so it's kind of this external eye — and it's kind of a proxy, too, for the viewer. So I think it's also encouraging this kind of participatory way of watching where you're very meta-conscious, or aware that you're watching something that's constructed. That's been going on for decades — pre-digital era, pre-streaming. And I think that it's a really interesting innovation again on the necessity of the subtitles, but then can we do something else with it?

Elamin: Well, Devin, I was going to say this reminds me of something that comes up in your Atlantic piece where someone described subtitles like having somebody else in the room, like a third person who's with you. What do you make of that description?

Devin: You know, that was really interesting because it was an actor friend of mine, who was on a show called Industry that I can't watch anymore without the subtitles because the financial dialogue and the riot of accents and the polyglot language — at some point I realized I couldn't follow it. And it turns out, he can't watch the show without subtitles. And he's on it! And I interviewed a sound mixer who's working on movies and television shows who's like, "I have to turn on the subtitles to hear things I worked on."

Elamin: Wow. 

Devin: And so, I think that separation is a fascinating cultural development when it's intended — when it's part of the experience, when they're trying to layer in that character. What I'm hoping in the future is that as this becomes more ubiquitous, it creates opportunities to be really creative with it. And you're really starting to see that with Stranger Things and little things like that.

Elamin: Yes. I'm so glad that you brought that up, because I was going to say, subtitles for Stranger Things went viral because they had all these detailed descriptions of sounds; it was like, "wet feet squelch."

Devin: Closed captions, right?

Elamin: It's closed captions, that's right. But when you see that do you go, "I guess this could become an art form in and of itself?" Does that maybe change your mind about our relationship to text on the screen?

Devin: Oh, I love that. That's the kind of thing that gets me all in for it, because now you're taking it back as part of the creative experience. If you give me options, I'm fine. I can always turn it off. But if we're going to have it, I like the idea of giving viewers more control over how they appear — what size they are, where they are on the screen — but I really like the idea of giving creative people more license to it, because the fact is people who need captions and subtitles are kind of getting a raw deal right now. They're really slapdash, they're really reflexive. They get slapped on at the end. It's not something that people are really putting a lot of effort to. And if everyone's using it, then maybe we should put a little more effort into it.

Michelle: Yes. Amen.

Elamin: That's true. Michelle, what do you make of this idea of this could become a whole other creative branch of TV-making?

Michelle: Oh, my gosh. I think that is the direction that we're going. And it corresponds to, I think, what we've been seeing happening in the last two decades already — the convergence of different media. So, those sound effects, they're a big part of comic books, right? And comic book stories are becoming television, becoming movies. And so not having that stark difference between different mediums … we're already seeing that all over the place. So I think it's just going to, yeah, become more creative and part of just a regular part of what we come to expect from our entertainment.

Elamin: Well, I'll tell you, I'm going to keep doing it because I have no intention of changing my behavior. But I appreciate both of you being here to shed a little bit of light on this. Devin, Michelle, thank you so much for your time and.

Michelle: Thank you.

Devin: Thanks for having us. This was really fun.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Panel produced by Jean Kim.


Amelia Eqbal is a digital associate producer, writer and photographer for Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Q with Tom Power. Passionate about theatre, desserts, and all things pop culture, she can be found on Twitter @ameliaeqbal.