What Subtitles Say About Our Changing Viewing Habits

By: Amy Cheng

More and more people are turning on subtitles to watch TV shows and movies, including programs in English or their own language.

Simeon Taylor, a lecturer in film and TV at Deakin University in Melbourne, believes there are several reasons for this.

“For starters, they’re more available these days; not that long ago, we were all watching just TV and it wasn’t even an option,” he said in an interview.

“Now, people are discovering it and are really liking it and they think ‘now I can actually understand what they’re saying’… now you get the option of knowing you’re not going to miss a single line.”

Another reason why people use subtitles is difficulty understanding accents, according to Mr Taylor.

Changing viewing habits

This normalisation of subtitles highlights the changing ways people are viewing content, Mr Taylor said.

“We’ve got so many options for how and where and when we can consume media,” he said.

“(Back in the day), unless you were lucky enough to have a TV in your bedroom, it was basically just the family TV; now you’ve got computers and smartphones and it’s ubiquitous.”

A lot more people are also watching content on the go, including Mr Taylor’s two daughters.

“One of them catches a bus home every day, she likes to watch stuff on her phone while she’s on the bus and you can’t necessarily hear very well, so the subtitles are perfect.”

“Now you get the option of knowing you’re not going to miss a single line,” – Simeon Taylor, Deakin University

Benefits of Subtitles

survey conducted in the United States in June last year surveyed 1200 Americans and found that 50 per cent of them watched content with subtitles most of the time.

Over half of them (55 per cent) said this was due to difficulty in hearing dialogue in shows and movies, which is more of a problem now than before.

However, sometimes viewers may not want to turn the volume up or the sound on at all.

“Subtitles are a good way to look at something, and even if you haven’t got the sound turned up, you can see what’s going on,” Mr Taylor said.

“People on social media will often be scrolling with the sound off, but most video content on social media usually has subtitles on it these days, so you get the message, you get the story without being able to hear it.”

He believes the normalisation of subtitles could also result in a better appreciation of foreign films.

“If you’re happier to watch subtitles, I’d argue that it leads you naturally to find content from overseas from other countries,” Mr Taylor said.

“It helps to expose you to be more inclined to find other shows from other parts of the world.”

“It helps to expose you to be more inclined to find other shows from other parts of the world,” – Simeon Taylor, Deakin University

Subtitles as a Distraction

However, subtitles can sometimes be a hindrance to the viewing experience, according to Mr Taylor.

“It can be distracting if you read a line before it’s delivered and you’re a little bit ahead, sometimes it can cheat the line of its impact.”

When it comes to enjoying the show the way the creator intended, subtitles can go against that or be an act of defeat, he said.

“In a way, turning on subtitles can almost be an admission or saying that you give up.”

For example, with accents, Mr Taylor believes a little bit of persistence could help viewers understand them better.

“What I find…when you’re watching a show with a character that has an accent that’s a bit tricky at first, if you give yourself the time, after a while, you adapt to it,” he said.

“Turning the subtitles on can kind of be the easy option, you don’t have to put the time and effort in.”

Sometimes, subtitles will provide viewers with a description of the music being played, for the benefit of the hearing impaired, but Mr Taylor thinks this can be unhelpful for everyone else.

“There’s nothing like watching a triumphant scene… and you see the subtitle, and it’s in the little brackets, and it’s got ‘emotionally uplifting music’, you kind of get reminded that you’re being manipulated,” Mr Taylor said.

“In a way, turning on subtitles can almost be an admission or saying that you give up,” – Simeon Taylor, Deakin University

Future of Subtitles

With more people using subtitles, they can only get better, according to Mr Taylor.

He believes this could be particularly true for foreign shows and movies.

“With subtitles becoming more popular, people are taking care to do them well… It’s not enough to just do a word-for-word translation.”

“(This is) especially true with metaphors, they don’t translate literally, you need to explain that metaphor; it’s up to the job of the translator to properly translate that from one culture to another.”

One area he’s particularly excited about is the use of technology in creating automatic subtitles and captions, which can already be seen on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram.

“If everyone is getting into subtitles these days, it just means that subtitles are going to get better and better.”

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash 

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