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Subtitles Are Great Until They Aren't

By Andrew Sanford | TV | June 7, 2023 |

By Andrew Sanford | TV | June 7, 2023 |


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My wife and I have always embraced subtitles. Both of us are fluent English speakers, happy to read the bottom of the screen to see, for instance, a foreign language film. Then, our children were born. They sleep in a room located directly behind our TV. So, to ensure we don’t wake them, we now watch movies and TV at a lower volume with subtitles on.

At first, we only had the TV at a low volume. Both my wife and I tried to pretend we could hear every word. Despite being in our mid and late 30s, respectively, we didn’t want to admit the truth: we were missing whole lines of dialogue and plot points. One day, my wife asked if we could put on subtitles. That has been the norm ever since.

We are not alone. In a new article at The Atlantic by Devin Gordon, the writer laments the modern-day prevalence of subtitles. According to him, we are taking a visual medium and turning it into something that needs to be read. He’s not wrong on that. Film and television are visual mediums. Taking time to read while absorbing them isn’t ideal. He does concede that subtitles are paramount for those with hearing or cognitive impairments or translation from a foreign language.

As Gordon points out, 58 percent of Roku owners use subtitles. According to Onnalee Blank, the four-time Emmy Award-winning sound mixer on Game of Thrones, streamers are to blame. Some, like Amazon, have introduced tools to deal with home audio issues, such as being able to raise only the dialogue of a show or movie. This is Amazon fixing a problem they made. Blank asks in the article, “Why don’t you just air it the way we mixed it?”

I enjoyed Gordon’s article, and I think I’m of two minds on the situation. On one hand, I don’t want to wake up my kids. They’re great sleepers (no big deal), but the risk is not worth the reward. We also live … right next to the George Washington Bridge, so there is a lot of highway noise, especially if we have an AC in our window. All that noise is hard for even the loudest of shows to compete with.

Still, there is one thing that subtitles entirely ruin: jokes. Subtitles will straight-up ruin a joke. Actors pause or take their time to emphasize a joke. If the punchline appears across the bottom of the screen before the actor can finish, the momentum and bite of the joke can be completely ruined. Some streamers are better about this, with subtitles being slightly delayed, but that presents its own challenges.

Subtitles are necessary, but not for everything. They can draw attention away from stunning visuals, but not entirely. When it comes to the casual use of subtitles, it amounts to a matter of preference. My wife and I will keep using them as long as our children quietly go to sleep at 7 PM. That will happen forever, right? Right?!