Cartoon with Subtitles and Captions

This article was originally published in The Reteller Vol. 7 June 2022

IF YOU CAN READ THIS, then you’ve probably watched a movie or TV show with subtitles or captions “turned on” – and you’re not alone.

Most people associate the need for these on-screen visual assists with watching something in a foreign language, helping the hearing impaired, or combatting background noise. But like much of the media landscape, these features are evolving, and for reasons we may not have anticipated.

Subtitles and captions have widely expanded along with the global demand for content across every platform and language. But it’s not just the increase in content that is driving this expansion, it’s also how they are being used. With a growing number of viewers of all ages consuming content not only on TVs, but on mobile devices and laptops (often simultaneously) we are not only seeing more, but different users.

According to research from Matinee Multilingual, four out of five viewers aged 18-25 claim to use subtitles all or part of the time, compared to less than a quarter of those aged between 56 and 75 saying the same.

Additional research has found that young people are more likely to say captions help them understand what’s going on, whereas older people claimed they were distracting. Essentially, younger people are getting more and more comfortable with, and even have a preference for, “seeing” what they are hearing.

The writing is on the wall, (or rather the screen)

While these numbers don’t necessarily indicate that the pendulum has completely swung the other direction, they do mark the beginning of a shift toward a new way of content creation and consumption – one that content owners and service providers should keep a close eye on.

As we’ve seen over the past 18 – 24 months, growth in global video platforms have driven an increased use of subtitles. Content owners have recognised the value and revenue opportunities in making their content available in many languages. Subtitles have become one of the most important tools in this effort to reach global audiences. But foreign language audiences aren’t the only ones driving this increase.

We are seeing growth in closed captions/SDH captions, which are typically in the same language as the audio and often complement the original content with additional information. While some of this growth is driven by general market shifts and federal mandates, younger audiences and their viewing habits, as mentioned previously, may play a part in this burgeoning trend in which people are used to watching video content with the sound muted – and with captions.

Melanie Sharpe, the chief executive of Stagetext, a charitable organization for the hearing impaired, believes that younger generations can take in far more information in a quicker way compared to older audiences, leading to more of an acceptance of subtitles. She adds, “This helps make [subtitles and captions] appear to be ‘the norm’ amongst younger audiences, meaning they’re no longer seen as an inconvenience or a chore.”

Younger audiences are also commonly multi-screen viewers, and the captions help them consume content faster and more efficiently. They are familiar with scrolling quickly through social content, which widely uses subtitles. Also, since they are rarely focused on only one screen at a time, captions help them focus on what is important in case something scrolls by quickly that might be of interest to them. Captions and subtitles make visual content easier to digest, whether the audience is hearing impaired or not.

So why have captions and subtitles become so prolific across all media? Captions and subtitles don’t just enhance the viewing experience, they also represent proven and tangible business benefits, particularly for online content creation.

Content creators across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and, increasingly, Instagram and TikTok, build their business off of shares and likes driven by engagement – which they get from dynamic, easily consumed content. Adding intuitive, high-quality captions to engaging video content online and across social media captures audiences quickly and holds them longer.

Facebook recently reported captioned video increased view time 12 percent. The company also reported about 85 percent of videos are watched on mute. A recent study saw a 40 percent increase in views of captioned videos versus uncaptioned. That same study found viewers were 80 percent more likely to watch a video until the end when closed captions were available.

So, what does this mean for the future of global content distribution and language and access services providers?

Content owners are seeing an increasing value in dubbing, subtitling and access services for a range of interactivity and accessibility purposes. When CC/subtitling, or any new viewing preference starts to become part of the entire viewing experience and not simply an alternate or supplement to the experience, it forces M&E organisations to look at potential shifts in the output.

As audiences become more accepting and comfortable with reading supplemental elements for the hearing impaired, we may begin to see stylistic changes more widely accepted within the traditional norms of CC/SDH. This may in turn impact decisions made at the order, production, and Quality Control stages. If textual elements such as sound effects or other descriptors inherent to CC/SDH files for the hearing impaired no longer feel disruptive or alter an otherwise positive viewing experience by the hearing viewer, then these elements may no longer be considered “redundant,” and a single CC/SDH output can serve both audiences.

This new audience adoption can begin to blur the lines that distinguish subtitles for the hearing impaired and English subtitles. At the same time, the more this kind of captioned content becomes normalised, the more quality matters since it’s now becoming part of the entire viewing experience. If we know so many viewers are choosing a text supplement, but not necessarily one that aligns with traditional needs, we want to make sure all outputs offer an experience that merges the best of both worlds.

Shifts like these in viewer behavior, the ones that emerge subtly but carry a profound impact to production decisions further upstream of viewer consumption, can compel language service providers to rethink existing norms in our workflows. If the trends hold true, this can be of mutual benefit to both the viewer and the content provider. While we are all working diligently to address today’s marketplace needs, it is important to keep our eye on those growing with our future audience and the efficiencies that may present themselves as a result.

By Miguel Angel Delgadillo, Director of Language Services, Visual Data