It happens regularly that words get mixed. Their use, in right and wrong situations, can affect their definition. They warp a little. Other words that have a similar meaning can also affect a word’s definition. Two words can become interchangeable. Sometimes you shrug your shoulders and say, “it’s okay. It’s not damaging. Each word will be used with their distinction when they need it.” It is our job here, though, to distinguish between two words that are often used interchangeably or are at least confused: “subtitles” and “closed captions.” They have their distinction because they have different benefits for and impacts on how video media is received. Customers and businesses will want what they want: “subtitles” or “closed captions.”
Subtitles are text that appears at the bottom of the screen, which transcribes the speech and is time-coded to play simultaneously with the audio. They detail what is said. Subtitles works under the assumption that the audience can still hear the audio and, therefore, does not need to include the speaker’s name and non-speech sounds (like music or environmental sounds like a knock at the door).
Most people will be familiar with their usage in foreign films. Netflix offers subtitles (and closed captions) as an audio option and audio in a different language, where actors record lines in a foreign language over the top of the original visuals. There is a lot of subtitle vs. dubbing debate. Subtitles will be seen in other media, too – not just stills from anime with a guy confused about a butterfly, which is used in severe appreciation or a meme. For instance, news will use subtitles to translate press conferences or speeches by major politicians in foreign countries.
Closed captions are similar to subtitles in that they transcribe speech to text and position that text at the bottom of the video, time-coded to synchronize with the audio. However, they don’t just detail what is said; they give the name of the speaker, what is said, music cues (“orchestral fanfare”), and environmental sounds (“car horn”). They don’t assume an audience can hear the audio. They will give as much information as possible on the screen to ensure that having no audio makes little difference to understanding the content.
As mentioned, they both serve a similar function, but closed captions are more comprehensive. They both offer immense value to businesses and creators. Subtitles and closed captions can be added to pre-recorded and live content. Verbit’s closed captioning software and other businesses that offer a similar service achieve real-time performance through AI. Humans have been used in the past but the potential for error tends to be higher. What subtitles and closed captions offer is another means of communication. The first thought often makes the content more accessible for those who are d/Deaf or have a hearing impairment. However, many smartphone users watch videos without sound because the environment is public, the sound doesn’t play automatically, or because a video is adapted to be played without sound.
This practice isn’t limited to social media content, though. Video conference software is being used for academic seminars, business meetings, and focus groups, where closed captions can be of great use. You can be using your new headphones with a good microphone to make yourself heard to deliver a well-practiced lecture and your speech can be transcribed as you talk so that everyone can access, regardless of ability or environment, your content.
While subtitles and closed captions are similar, they are different. They have additional uses, depending on the goal.