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Not that long ago, in the time before Netflix and video-on-demand, English language TV shows and movies with subtitles were an accessibility tool for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Likewise, watching foreign language films was a niche hobby made possible by the back catalogue of SBS. But thanks to the disruption brought about by streaming platforms and mobile devices, subtitles have gone mainstream as an essential viewing aid for many people.
Whether it’s to decipher the Northern Irish accent of the Derry Girls crew and the frenetic pace of finance industry jargon in Industry, watch international hits like Squid Game and Lupin, or enjoy Everything Everywhere All at Once in its full linguistic glory, the trend is especially prevalent among younger viewers.
Recent US research found a whopping 70% of Gen Z viewers aged 11-26 use subtitles most of the time. UK figures show four out of five people aged 18-25 use subtitles all or part of the time, and anecdotal evidence suggests a similar pattern is emerging in Australia.
‘We’re much more willing to watch with subtitles these days – anything from Japanese anime to actively turning them on when we’re watching a show in English,’ says Simeon Taylor, a lecturer in film and TV from Deakin’s Faculty of Arts and Education. ‘It’s a big shift in the way we consume content.’
For many people, turning on the subtitles while watching an English-speaking program or film is a practical consideration. Despite the popularity of steaming services, many big-budget filmmakers and production companies make movies for cinemas, not for chilling out in our lounge rooms, which can make it tricky to listen to the audio on your TV or laptop.
The US research found that most people find background music makes it difficult to hear dialogue, and that it’s harder to hear dialogue than it used to be. Actors and TV personalities talking faster than they used to and visuals that aren’t as well-lit are other cited drivers of the popularity of subtitles.
And even if the content you’re watching was made for streaming, watching it on your phone while you’re on the bus or in a café can impede your listening ability – not to mention if you’re watching a TV or film with accents that can be challenging to decipher.
‘One of the main benefits of subtitles is getting a really clear understanding of the dialogue as you don’t have to grapple with accents and missing key bits of dialogue,’ Taylor says, explaining that this shift points to a preference for greater control in the way we watch visual content.
‘We really love having a choice of information and being able to pick and choose how we consume TV and film, and subtitles are a part of that.’
The popularity of subtitles is also driven by the fact that without them we would be unable to enjoy much of the fabulous foreign-language content streaming platforms grant us access to. It’s a far cry from the admirable but singular offerings of free-to-air SBS, says Taylor.
‘SBS did a great job, but it was more of a minority broadcaster. Now, thanks to all the different streaming services, there’s much greater exposure of foreign content to mainstream audiences.’
Our willingness to watch Money Heist, Dark, Borgen and Extraordinary Attorney Woo also speaks to broader acceptance of linguistic diversity in a globalised society – which, Taylor says, is something anglophone audiences have traditionally been slower to embrace.
‘Exposure to other people’s values helps us come to a realisation that our local mainstream media is only one way to view a story,’ he says. ‘Younger people, in particular, are much more aware of and open to other ideas and cultures.’
Nevertheless, subtitles can change your viewing experience, and Taylor says there are instances when it can be helpful to switch them off.
‘Watching with subtitles can alter the impact of the show or film because you’re spending more time reading subtitles and less time looking at or listening to the performances,’ he says. ‘Taking the time to immerse yourself, and perhaps get accustomed to the accents, means you’re watching it more as the creator intended.’
Looking ahead, Taylor says the availability of different types of subtitles may help to improve our viewing experience.
‘Subtitles are made for the audio impaired, and they include descriptions of the music. This can detract from the experience because you might be watching a particularly emotional scene and if you’re watching with subtitles, you might see “emotional music” written on the screen, which can reduce the impact of the scene,’ he says.
‘People with hearing issues are the first priority because they need subtitles more than anyone else, but it would be great to have additional options.’
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