What is Closed Captioning and How Does it Differ From Subtitles

27 October 2021
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In this media-driven world, it's common to come across the terms "closed captions" and "subtitles." Most people don't give them much thought, but they're of great significance for those who utilize them. However, many don't know there's a distinction between the two. So, what is closed captioning vs subtitles? Why is their difference important? 

The Word on Closed Captioning and Subtitles

Closed captioning and subtitles have two entirely different purposes. Nevertheless, they often cause confusion. It's not uncommon for even larger media entities to interchange the two terms. 

Closed Captioning

First thing's first. What is closed captioning, and what is its purpose? Captions are a transcript of sound. Whether from a movie on TV or a documentary online, captions take verbalized words and visually interpret them, turning them into readable words.

Furthermore, captions relay more than just spoken language. Their function is actually an accessibility feature that assists the deaf or hearing-impaired. Captions cover features such as: 

  • Background noises so the viewer can experience the video as a whole
  • Music lyrics and descriptions that help emphasize the plot's current tone
  • Speaker differentiation and narration indicators to clarify who's saying what
  • Moving on-screen word placement so reading doesn't interfere with viewing.    

Subtitles

Subtitles also offer assistance but do so with a contrasting purpose. They're geared toward viewers without any hearing issues who have a language barrier. If the production is not in their native tongue, a person can opt to add subtitles to the footage.

In essence, subtitles are translations. Typically, outlets include subtitles for the countries where the footage is distributed. For example, if an American movie releases in France, then French will be a subtitle option.

More than just thrown-together words, subtitles have some significant features, including: 

  • Professional translations with precise editing
  • Timed transcriptions that coincide exactly with the footage
  • Uniform bottom-screen display to provide consistency   

Caption Options

Closed captioning has the unique feature of live typing. If there's a broadcast with impromptu or unscripted occurrences, a typist can include these in real-time writing. However, this may sometimes lead to a delay.

There's also the option of open captions. Whereas closed captions allow the viewer to turn them on or off, open captions are embedded in videos and can't be shut off. 

Subtitle Variables

On occasion, subtitles include "subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing." This feature is a hybrid between captions and subtitles. Providing words in the host language and other languages, it takes on the characteristics of closed captions, such as denoting sound effects and music. However, it cannot move around the screen like closed captions, so the words are always in the same place.

Subtitles are often used as a learning tool as well. Many people trying to absorb a new language opt to turn them on and follow along. Research proves this method of review is highly beneficial. 

Concluding Comparison

Both closed captioning and subtitles serve important communication purposes. While captions help those with auditory impairments, subtitles assist with language translation.

Thanks to technology's constant evolution, providing visual on-screen scripts is becoming the norm. Though some countries, like America, are bound to legal stipulations for disability requirements, this is only a minimum. Most media outlets recognize the moral and practical advantages of visual text, offering a number of inclusive options so people across the world can stay informed or be entertained.