Why have subtitles become more popular?

Daniel Sims

Posts: 753   +28
The big picture: Recent articles have re-ignited the debate over why more viewers use closed captioning these days. A piece from the Telegraph over the weekend highlights the rising popularity of foreign media and partially blames kids stuck on their phones, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

Filmmakers and researchers have proposed multiple factors to explain the rising popularity of subtitles. Reasons include changes in how viewers process information, what people are watching, and shifts in audio design. Translators and captioners are acutely feeling the effects.

A Sunday piece from the Telegraph is the latest to highlight the trend, pinning it on Generation Z. It references last November's study from Stagetext and Sapio Research suggesting most viewers aged 18-25 turn on subtitles some or all of the time. One big reason is that they're more willing to watch shows and movies produced outside the US, both English and non-English. Americans watching UK shows like Peaky Blinders, Downton Abbey, or Derry Girls might need help understanding the accents.

Age Use subtitles some or all of the time watching TV on any device Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing
18-24 80% 10%
26-35 64% 15%
36-45 55% 15%
46-55 37% 14%
56-75 23% 18%

Credit: BBC / Stagetext / Sapio Research

Earlier this month, a survey from Preply yielded similar results to the Sapio study, noting that Americans also had trouble understanding the accents in Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bridgerton, The Crown, and Doctor Who. It also contains a list of celebrities Americans have trouble understanding, filled with UK actors like Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, James McAvoy, and Idris Elba.

Increasingly popular foreign-language programming is another apparent reason for the rise in subtitle use. The South Korean series Squid Game became Netflix's most popular show ever. Parasite — also from South Korea — was the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020. Other examples include Money Heist, Lupin, Narcos, Call My Agent!, RRR, and Dark.

Another theory is that younger viewers like to quickly read subtitles, glance at what's happening on the TV, and then resume looking at their phones. Here, subtitles effectively facilitate passively watching a series or movie while multitasking.

However, a significant factor the Preply survey indicates is that dialogue is getting harder to hear due to the sound mixing. Over three-quarters of respondents reported difficulty hearing characters' lines over background music. For example, Christopher Nolan's 2020 film Tenet became a flashpoint in the debate surrounding unintelligible movie dialogue.

Last December, Slashfilm interviewed entertainment industry workers to find the root causes behind recent shifts in audio mixing. Some directors and actors now prefer a naturalistic approach to delivering and shooting performances that might be harder for the sound crew to record. Some say sound teams are increasingly ignored on sets. Directors and audio mixers also face trouble when optimizing for theaters versus TVs.

Multiple interviewees complained to Slashfilm that theaters set their speakers too low, killing the dialogue. When mixing for streaming, a significant obstacle is the audio compression services utilized to conserve data. Mobile devices let viewers watch content in busier and noisier public spaces. Some also use subtitles to learn a new language, including ESL learners.

The growing preference for subtitles and the popularity of foreign-language entertainment have increased a demand that subtitle writers are struggling to meet. Television is drawing translators away from other sectors like diplomacy. At the same time, captioning is increasingly being recognized as an art form, as viewers have praised the creative writing in Stranger Things Season 4's closed captions.

Whatever the case, it's clear that subtitles have become an increasingly important accessibility tool, especially for younger audiences.

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Posts: 1,091   +1,989
When the audio mixing for the TV show or movie is crappy....which is found in almost every movie or show in the past 10 years or more.

Sound effects blow your eardrums out, but speech is so quiet you have to turn the volume up and then you're meet with super fantastic sound effects that wreck your hearing and so you turn the volume down and then they start talking again and you have to turn the volume up......

Seriously, how fricking hard is it for them to do it in a proper manner where you don't have to wear ear plugs so the explosions in action sequences don't rupture your eardrums and you can also hear the talking without having to crank up the volume?

I find it easier to turn the volume down so the sound effects aren't rattling my brain and since I can't hear the people talking at a lower volume I just read the subtitles....I've been doing this for years and I find it hard not to watch a show/movie without subtitles going.

I know my hearing isn't bad, I have it tested yearly at my work and I wear hearing protection at work when in the noisy areas. The issue isn't me because I know other people that tell me the same thing when they're watching a show or movie, how irritating it is when the voice audio is so low they have to turn the volume up high and then the loud sound effects hurt their ears and they have to turn down the volume.....then they can't hear people talking again so the cycle just repeats ad nauseum.

As for voice dubbing: Dub over is usually really bad, in my opinion. If you want an example, find the Hercules movie that Arnold Schwarzenegger did many years ago and find the copy that did the voice over.....it's hilarious to listen to. Also, after watching the Ip Man movies with subs, when I went to watch Ip Man 4 and Netflix decided I wanted dubs, the different voices from the actual actors made it hard to listen to. I had to screw around with settings and stopping/starting Netflix multiple times to revert the setting so it was subs and not dubs. I'd rather read subtitles over listening to bad dubbed voices.
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Posts: 1,348   +2,022
Streamers like Netflix have definitely changed the rules as far as how likely I am to be exposed to shows originally created in other languages or with non-American accents.

It wasn't that long ago that an American TV network felt compelled to remake the excellent UK series Broadchurch - which of course was written and performed in English - just so American viewers would not have to hear the non-American accents. This not-that-young American viewer far preferred the original UK version and I suspect I wasn't alone.

I'm glad to see that it appears that each generation is getting increasingly comfortable with content from a wider range of source countries.


Posts: 7   +15
I have to agree with @Neatfeatguy that most of the "BAD" movie and TV shows "Today" think they can make a "SORRY A$$" movie or show into something better by making the music and sound effects so loud no one can hear the actual conversations going on. Therefore I have to enable "Subtitles" just to know what the characters are saying. And guess what?: Most of what their saying AIN'T WORTH listening to.

Lew Zealand

Posts: 2,280   +2,862
TechSpot Elite
Don't forget that the audio on many/most TVs is pretty trash so you almost need subs if you don't want to deal with outboard audio. Our TV's pic is great and we've always used a sound system but I tried out the TV audio and it was the worst I'd yet heard. Mom just got a new TV and it's audio is OK, perfectly usable for dialogue. Not ours.


Posts: 179   +227
Certainly multifactorial, but one is definitely television design. I'm decrepit enough to remember woodgrain CRT televisions. They had a single low-quality speaker that was all mids - perfect for speech and vocals in programming.

I'm sure the much-widened soundstage of modern consumer AV - along with the incentive for productions to exploit this - has somewhat drowned out the vocals.

Edit: and I think it's great that the US audience is getting more exposure to non-US productions and getting normalised to different accents. As an Aussie I remember seeing the US dub of Mad Max 2 (AKA Road Warrior) on TV and wondering what was happening. Didn't we speak English here too? :laughing:
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Posts: 1,393   +1,036
Like Dubbing subtitling is an art
When I travelled in South America in 1987 - I felt sorry for local people as other than say kids movies . You had subtitles in spanish - most of them were crap - for a reading level of 12 with no nuance .

Then you see the perfection of a foreign movie where the idiom spoken is matched with one in the subtitled language .

Even with Anime - can be weird as dub has different meaning from subtitle - so makes you wonder on other things where you only have one option .
Why get a big name to do donkey if you can't see them - because they are good at it .

Unless the studio invests in HQ dubs (eg say Pixar ) then subtitles every time ,

In Russia in the 90s some VHS movies were just one guy speaking Russian over the top of say english dialogue in the same voice - NOOOOOOO! would be a small nyet


Posts: 2,903   +3,208
TechSpot Elite
I love the Netflix series "Peaky Blinders." But I couldn't understand most of what they were saying due to the accents and lingo. Had to have the subtitles just to figure out what was going on.
(y) (Y)There are actual foreign language films that almost seem easier to understand than Peaky Blinders is. I gave up on it. For me, it wasn't worth the aggravation.

So to answer the topic question. I would guess it is because of more British films and TV shows.

I would bet that more people need subtitles for British cinema than for Spanish language media.
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Posts: 1,258   +1,225
There's nothing more cringe-worthy than the scene in Red Heat movie when two (supposed) Russians (Arnie and the antagonist) meet and one of them says to the other: "Speak in English!"

I always hated dubbing in movies that take place in a foreign-only setting. It throws out realism away.

For me, there's no problem reading subs in English when people are speaking in Russian, Italian or Spanish.

There's nothing more odd than watching two non-English speaking characters speaking in English. Imagine watching a Chinese movie taking place in China and everyone speaking American English. Yech.


Posts: 19,284   +8,431
Audio mixing has definitely gone to hell. I've had to permanently boost the volume on my center channel to hear dialog, but music from the left and right channels is ear splitting. This is inexcusable for a "professional" production.
FWIW, verify the efficiency between the center channel and the front pair.
I had that issue running a JBL Stadium "voice" in the Center, and 2 2x 8" Klipsch "Icon" towers. I had to leave the TV speakers on to hear the center. I got fed up, and bought a Klipsch RP-250 C center, and the problem went away. Klipsch is claiming about 98 DB @1 watt on the towers and 96 DB on the center. The JBL center was something on the order of 89 DB. So, more than double the volume from the Klipsch center.

Other than that, I usually kick on the stereo when late night TV hosts a live musical act. I think the sound engineers might be mixing the front person toward the back on purpose, since half of them can't sing. Not to mention the lyrics are mostly worthless, repetitive crap anyway.

Hooda Thunkett

Posts: 22   +30
All of the complaints about the sound mix in Tennet were the reasons I have never bothered watching it. I'm not interested in sitting through another movie where the dialog delivered by professional actors is secondary to special effects.


Posts: 310   +282
I use subtitles as I have hearing problems due to menieres disease, It's been great that more and more streaming services have them such as Youtube and Netflix. My Mrs got so used to them being on she uses them herself now too despite having good hearing. It also allows me to keep the volume down to sensible levels.

And as posted before, I have encountered a number of shows where the spoken audio is just too quiet for me to hear at all.


Posts: 110   +39
I got a nice soundbar with a sub woofer and it's a million times better than TV speakers. I still use subs though . I don't want to miss any dialogue. Funnily enough I have issues with Southern and slang accents in American films and issues with thick British and Irish accents. I hope that more streaming services like amazon will start having good captions.


Posts: 1,091   +1,989
All of the complaints about the sound mix in Tennet were the reasons I have never bothered watching it. I'm not interested in sitting through another movie where the dialog delivered by professional actors is secondary to special effects.

The movie sucked, you didn't miss anything. I was so bored that I didn't even finish it. I tried, I really tried, but the movie was so bad that I stopped watching it about an hour into the movie.


Posts: 114   +218
It's definitely modern mixing. Playing OT Star Wars, Little House on the Prairie, or older Harry Potter movies, as recent examples I just watched, I have no issues picking out the dialogue. Anything 2010 onwards it seems is COMPLETELY unintelligible and I need subtitles.

Also, I'm really irritated with the "volume dance" they expect you to do where you have to turn it wayyyyy down during loud scenes and way up during quiet ones. Older shows like Little House on the Prairie of all things have solved this very well where you can just have it on one volume and never worry about it.