How often do you watch TV shows and movies at home with subtitles turned on? If the answer is “always,” then you’re not alone. As home audiences have entered the streaming era, subtitles and subtitles for series and movies have become increasingly accessible.
While these may be vital and necessary tools for the deaf and anyone viewing a project not in their native language, for many people it has become the default to wear them no matter what. In a 2022 survey of 1,200 people, language learning company Preply determined that 50 percent of Americans use subtitles and closed captions most of the time they watch content.
Why? Generally, there are three reasons. The first is that, for many people, it has become much more difficult to understand dialogue on TV. This is the top reason cited in Preply’s survey, with nearly 72% of respondents using closed captioning as one of the top reasons.
The underlying causes of slurred dialogue are many, multifaceted, and can vary from person to person. For some, the design of modern televisions is the problem; most of which place the internal speakers at the bottom of the set instead of facing the audience, resulting in significantly worse audio quality. Other issues are caused by sound designs optimized for cinematic experiences, which can result in compressed audio when translated at home. Whatever the reason, many people struggle to hear dialogue now, so turning on subtitles to decipher what people are saying has become a no-brainer.
Beyond the technical issues, many people are also just more used to using subtitles, which makes them a habit rather than a distraction. As to why they are used to them, just look at the meteoric rise in the availability and consumption of foreign language content on streamers.
A 2020 survey by Parrot Analytics, which specializes in researching entertainment consumption trends, reported that non-US shows accounted for for nearly 30 percent of US audience demand for TV during the third quarter of 2020. And that was a full year before Korean sensation “Squid Game” became the biggest show in the streaming world.
Even when the show is in English, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to understand what people are saying. More people than ever watch British TV, for example, and may need subtitles to decompress all those wild dialects in the latest season of “Love Island” or understand the Irish accents of “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Derry Girls. ” Preply’s survey says this is the second most common reason people use closed captions, with 61% of respondents citing it as a factor. If people get used to using subtitles where they are basically required, it becomes a matter of habit to keep them in use even when watching American productions.
The third and final reason behind the change is a simple matter of demographic trends and changes; Gen Z is overwhelmingly the generation most likely to turn on closed captions according to Preply’s numbers, with 70% of respondents in the generation saying they use closed captions “most of the time” compared to 53% of Millennials, 38 percent of Gen X and 35 percent of Baby Boomers. As for Why Generation Z likes to toggle text while watching their shows, part of this is that people of the generation grew up watching videos on social media, where subtitles are the default encouraged by the algorithm.
Another reason is that Gen Z exhibit markedly different viewing habits than baby boomers in terms of where they are watching their movies and shows. According to Preply, 57% of all Americans watch shows, movies or videos in public on their mobile devices, but a very significant 74% of Gen Z do the same. Even if you (hopefully) use headphones while in public, the audio quality is likely to be poor and you’ll hear background noises if you watch “The Irishman” on public transport. In this environment, subtitles are practically a necessity if you want to understand what is happening on your screen. So contrary to what Bong Joon-ho he might have said oncefor many people subtitles are not a barrier, but more and more they have become a window.