What's the Difference Between Closed Captioning and Subtitles?

By: Allison Troutner  | 

Closed captioning
Closed captioning and subtitles are two different things. This scene from 1963's "Charade" shows an example of closed captioning. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1972, regular viewers of Julia Child's cooking program, "The French Chef," watched for the first time as a series of sentences scrolled across the bottom of their television screens. Just as words like "I think every woman should have a blowtorch" rolled off Child's lips, the same words appeared as text to every wannabe Julia watching her program.

This was the first TV program to air with closed captions appearing automatically on the television screen. Like those on "The French Chef," closed captions were some of the earliest efforts to bring the joy of television to hearing-impaired audiences.

Today, there are two ways that viewers can read what's going on in their favorite videos: subtitles and closed captions. Though the terms are used interchangeably, there is a notable difference between the two. Once you understand the distinction, you'll be able to spot it every time.

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Closed Captioning

Closed captions appear as text on the screen and are always in the same language as the original content. Aside from just the audio portion of the program, closed caption also includes background sounds; they also indicate when speakers change by using their names or a "—" to note the change in who's talking.

For example, if you're watching a documentary, and the narrator stops speaking and is replaced by a musical interlude, you'll see something like [somber music playing] on the screen. Closed captions are designed with the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities in mind.

The 2022 Oscar for Best Picture "CODA" (acronym for children of deaf adults) has one-third of its dialogue spoken through American Sign Language and was the first feature film to be released to theaters with closed captions in the film reel.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all video programming distributors to provide closed captions. Unfortunately, not every program or video has it available. In most cases, what you see is subtitles instead.

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Subtitles

So what exactly are subtitles? Subtitles are when only spoken dialogue is displayed with text on the screen. It's typically intended to make content available to viewers in different languages. So for instance, if a movie or television show is initially recorded in Spanish, viewers who speak English can watch using English subtitles on their screens.

Subtitles supplement the audio experience but don't attempt to describe background sounds like closed captioning. Subtitles aren't intended for the hard-of-hearing community; they're designed instead to make on-screen content more widely available to viewers in other languages. The super-popular Korean series "Squid Game" utilized subtitles for non-Korean-speaking viewers.

Both closed captions and subtitles are becoming more popular as video content dominates streaming and social media platforms. Viewers who want to watch a YouTube or TikTok video in silence can easily click on the automatically generated subtitles to view the videos without sound.

Whether you're trying to get cooking lessons from your favorite chef or watching your favorite sitcom while your baby sleeps, closed captions and subtitles make video viewing more widely available to everyone.

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