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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
The joy of subtitles
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

TV subtitles may be primarily for deaf people or those who are hard of hearing, but research has revealed they are used by six million people who have no hearing impairment. Why?

Perhaps we should blame NYPD Blue or ER or whichever TV series it was that first pioneered the shaky, handheld camera technique.

Years ago a TV drama, be it Minder, Juliet Bravo or Day of the Triffids, exuded a certain staginess. We didn't really know it at the time... it was just how TV was.

Action tended to be a tad stilted and characters' lines were delivered with Rada-like clarity, often in Received Pronunciation.

Then along came a trend that might best be described as TV VeritÚ. Cameras rolled, jumped and jostled to intensify the on-screen drama and microphones struggled to keep up.

Key plot developments might turn on a muffled comment, or a piece of dialect indecipherable to outsiders. But no matter, in the eyes of the director - the more authentic the better.

Not so in the ears of the viewers, however. Which might explain the current vogue for subtitles.

Rapid fire ramblings

Research by Ofcom, the media regulator, has found that of the 7.5 million people who use TV subtitles, six million have no hearing impairment at all.

For those who have discovered the joy of subtitles, the idea of keeping up with the countless plot twists inflicted on 24's Jack Bauer, or Christopher Eccleston's rapid-fire ramblings as Doctor Who, would be nigh-on impossible without the aid of 888 - the Ceefax/Teletext page where subtitles live.

Subtitles from 1982
Why change a classic design? Subtitles from 1982
The problem with subtitles is once discovered they can be incredibly hard to let go of. Their value extends to a rich variety of TV-watching scenarios.

Tucking into a bag of crisps while slobbing on the sofa? Subtitles ensure not a word is missed as the sound gets drowned out by the head-echo of crunching.

Trying to lull a baby to sleep... cut the sound and let the subtitles do the work.

And where videos were useless, DVDs only feed one's subtitle addiction.

Diligent subtitlers - and there seem to be plenty of them out there - even go so far as to include the name of a song that is being played in the background, and the artist performing it. (How long before viewers will be able to click on the title to download the song?)

Others actually transcribe the lyrics.

The vast majority of subtitling is pre-recorded, but when watching the news with subtitles one can't help but respect the craft of the live subtitler, as they struggle to keep up with galloping newsreaders.

Sentences frequently go uncompleted. Errors are common, and entirely understandable, but that doesn't stop them eliciting a slight grin - like the subtitler who recently referred to Andrew Lloyd Wober.

Now and again, one even detects a certain recklessness in the subtitle suite, as when, during one of those celebrity-packed Christmas adverts (yes, ads get subtitled too) Marks & Spencer used to make, a line popped up declaring: "I love you Rupert" just as Rupert Everett hoved into camera.

Occasionally, though, the subtitle can be more a hindrance than a help, even to the most ardent fan. Comic timing is something subtitlers have yet to be able to replicate - with the result that punchlines tend to appear before they are actually spoken and the whole thing is ruined.

Mostly, though, subtitles tend to enhance one's viewing experience. And who knows - for all of us one day as advancing years take their toll, they will doubtless become even more indispensable.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Up until a few years ago, I couldn't watch any film that was even slightly scary - but then I discovered subtitles! Even with the sound still on, a typed threat of "suspenseful music" followed by a "piercing scream" and "muffled footsteps" became watchable and, quite frankly, rather funny. I also use subtitles when watching DVDs, but alternate between English and German titles and audio. It has improved my German no end! Long live subtitles, I say!
Lisa, Barnsley

Personally, I'm not one who reads sub-titles - however, I recently joined a gymnasium - and find them very useful. I can follow the rolling news or a cookery program while trying to forget that I've still got 5 mins of pain to go. One thought, with the advernt of digital transmissions, any chance of having a more readable font?
John Walker, Petersfield

I am partially deaf and it is difficult for me to pick out what is being said on TV especially when some one speaks fast or when there are several converation in the background. On those programmes where subtitles are not available, I tend to lipread on what is being said and therefore had to stay focused incase I miss a word. For me, subtitles is a blessing and it really helps me understand the plot of the movies, laugh at comedy shows, enjoy cartoon movies with my kids and so much more. I would therefore like subtitles available on almost every programmes, movies, comedy shows etc so I can enjoy them with my family when we watch together. I have recently purchased Sky TV and am a bit disappointed that on some of the channels I have shown interest in does not have subtitles particularly the Hallmark Channel that shows detective and crime movies. But nevertheless you cannot have everything you can ask for and subtitles certainly getting more available than it was 20 yrs ago.!
Asif Iqbal, Gloucester

By far the best use of subtitles ever is home-made kareoke, if you switch on the subtitles during top of the pops you can then sing along!!
catherine, Aberdeen

My wife is Belgian, and when she first moved over to the UK subtitles helped her to understand what people were saying. I've since picked up the habit, and we rarely watch TV without them. They're especially invaluable when watching Never Mind The Buzzcocks, where Mark Lamarr speaks incredibly fast, and the American drama series The West Wing, for the same reason.
Stuart Singleton, Nottingham, UK

Subtitles are also invaluable for people who are not completely fluent in English, often being able to clarify what they're hearing by reading below. I know several foreign people for whom they make a huge difference and it improves their English too (although I'm not sure whether this applies to watching Eastenders!)
Dan, London, UK

Subtitling has made watching Television a far less stressful experience for me. The producers of all those programmes acting in the mistaken belief that my viewing pleasure is increased by having blasting music playing over the top of muffled dialogue (yes, ER and others, j'accuse) should try shuffling with averted eyes past their neighbours, in the guilty knowledge that they have shared your choice of programming on the previous night. Now I just give up on trying to hear more than 1 word in 3 (I have 25% hearing loss) and rely on subtitles to fill in the gaps. Yes, subtitles are fantastic and the idiosynchracies of the subtitlers do tend to fascinate but PLEASE turn the music down a bit!!
Teresa , Belfast, N. Ireland

This article comes as a great relief to me!I have no hearing problems but often use subtitles. My wife thinks I am mad! Where I work it can be quite noisy, and when I watch the TV of an evening I want a little quiet; in order to be able to hear the dialogue you have to endure the over-the-top supposedly back-groud music!! Subtitles; best thing ever (and you cannot hear the adverts!)
David Oates, worthing

None of our family are deaf, but I've had some hearing problems in the past, and my daughter has speech and language problems. Any help with understanding is always useful. Quite frankly we have given up on programs without subtitles and gone to another channel.
Mark Jones, Croydon UK

A friend and I were having dinner whilst watching the Eurovision Song Contest one year.The sub titler was fighting a losing battle all the way, but it was the most hysterical evening. And we left the sound on too for Terry's wonderful commentary! Unfortunately they seem to be a little more prepared for Eurovision nowadays.
Jill, England

Some of the best uses of subtitling I've come across on DVD is in the Production Notes on some of the Dr Who DVDs which can provide an alternate commentary, ie "Watch out for the scenery wobble in this scene."
Dicky Entrails, London

My wife and I use subtitles when we feed our baby. We turn the volume down and it is a chance for us all to relax and veg out in front of the TV without disturbing our Georgie before bed.
Alex Young, Byfleet, England

The best use of subtitles for me has to be on Never Mind The Buzzcocks during the Intros round - indescribably funny, you have to see it to appreciate it!
Richard, London, UK

Being 'hard of hearing' I depend on subtitles completely - they're marvellous. Is there any hope that they could ever appear on programmes we video - that wold be perfect!
Evelyn Harding, Hook, Hants.

I saw a superb subtitle mistake a couple of months ago... there was a report on the news about a new employment policy that would benefit millions of unemployed and impoverished indian citizens... the subtitle read "If this policy works, it may be set to achieve even more that my hammock man Ghandi"! That kept me amused for weeks! Or maybe Muhatma had a hammock company that I'm unaware of?
Leo Freedman, Liverpool

I watch the Welsh language programme "Pobl y Cwm", via satellite, with subtitles! It's great; much better than the other soaps!
Gaz Mung, Southampton

I started using subtitles so I could watch telly and breastfeed my baby peacefully. Now it feels odd to watch telly without subtitles. It is annoying on University Challenge though, when they put the answer on right after the question!
Lisa , Chippenham, Wilts

If subtitles are so popular then why, during documentaries and news items when someone is speaking in a language other than English, is it necessary to dub the sound rather than use subtitles?
Tony, Horsham, UK

How apt that at long last Sensory disablement has been given a page of publicity that it so richly deserves. I am profoundly deafened since 1953 and a very keen campaigner for increased subtitling on ALL channels including Digital. Many years ago, we had just about 5% of programmes subtitled. This figure is now in the 80% or thereabouts. I have carried banners to Parliament, Spoken to Lord Ashley many times, campaigned with The Royal Institute of the Deaf, and for my involvement I have been awarded the British Empire Medal. Deaf people are the 'Cinderellas'of Diablement. But we NEED Subtitles to enjoy Television. Never mind the few mistakes, our common sense can very quickly get the tread of the story or joke. My visits to the subtitling Units of both BBC and ITV have 'opened' my eyes to the complexity of the equipment re
ALAN.M.ROBERTS.

I have problems hearing and am reliant upon a crossaid directing all sound into one ear to catch several pieces of Information clearly. I find that I am very dependant on subtitles for most films and even find that the subtitles pick up things that are not heard. this makes my life a lot easier. If people wish to use subtitles then it isa fine by me and even a good idea in some cases as they are not affected by masive amounts of background noise in places where a voice would be.
Stuart Casley,

I use subtitles all the time on the Television and on Dvds, even though i haven't got a hearing impariment. I find i prefer not to watch a film without the subtitles. although i didnt realise that the subtitles were purely for the Deaf. I do feel it enhances the viewing, and i don't see it as a hinderance. The only time it is a hinderance is when the words don't form properly and you are left with a lot of symbols and parts of words. Perhaps this could be improved since the worst channel for these subtitle problems are on BBC1.
Cathrine, Newton Stewart.

I used subtitles on children's programmes when my daughter was learning to read. She loved being able to read along with her favourite characters.
Belinda Barton, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

In France, I was a member of this select group who will always go to see a film in its original tongue (be it English, Italian, Japanese...) with subtitles even if I didn't know anything about the language. I moved to the UK nearly 11 years ago. My English was fine, well, good enough to work! However, I struggled with TV. Programs I loved, especially comedy such as "Have I got news for you" were actually quite mysterious and subtitles were a great help to find out what Paul, Angus and Ian were joking about. Over time, my understanding of English has improved. I was extremely happy when I realised I did not need subtitles anymore (well, I still need them for Rab C.) But they are so useful when there is noise around, they also sometimes help concentrating on the program I am watching. I really miss them when they are absent.
Pascal Jacquemain, Welwyn Garden City, UK

Using subtitles while watching TOTP2 reveals the lyrics that I just La-la-la'd along to in my youth.
Clinton Buckoke, Leigh-on-Sea, England

I think you forgot to mention that subtitles are of great use for foreigners living in England and who find easier to read English than listen to it spoken very quickly.
John-Paul Keane, Paris

I love subtitling! For me, it gives me a better understanding of the show and is a *big* plus for DVD's. One of the many reasons why I do not buy pirate DVD's is the lack of subtitles. If a DVD has no subtitling - I think twice about the purchase. For most American shows subtitling is a must - especially where the leading actors' have a southern drawl!
Andrew Johnson, South Croydon, Surrey

If it wasn't for the overloud background music, ambient noise levels on the set and actors indulging to the full in "the method" we would not need to resort to sub-titles. I am sure the programme producers will rebut this by saying it adds to the realism of the programme, but frankly I would rather hear and understand.
Bob Peel, Maidenhead, UK

Maybe subtitles are good reading practice for TV watchers?
Stevie Afghan, Bristol UK

Subtitles during Top of the Pops is a surreal experience.
Neil Walton, Bicester, UK

I always used subtitles so my kids could play without interupting the programme, so the phone ringing and conversations could go on, basically so a programme could be watched wihtout any interuption. I'm not sure if it's just the tv i have, or if subtitles aren't the 'done thing' here, but there doesn't seem to an equal for it here :(
Karl, mi/usa (formerly stourport/uk)

My wife and I tend to use subtitles, although neither of us has a hearing problem, for 2 reasons. First, the quality of diction is often so bad that it is difficult to interpret the mumblings. Second, it appears to be compulsory for all spoken word to be accompanied by such raucous "music" that it is often impossible to make out what is being said.
Gerald Law, Crawley, England

I use the subtitles for two reasons: 1) I find some accents very difficult to decipher 2) My girlfriend will usually want a "conversation" while I'm trying to watch television.
Paul, Colchester

As one of those who use sub-titles because of a hearing problem, I appeal to program makers to reduce the volume of incidental music. Often important dialog is drowned out by the music.
Mary Hyder-Smith, Bexhill-on-Sea

i agree absolutely! without subtitles, i would not have been able to understand half of the dialogue in the "lord of the rings" trilogy. especially smiggle's lines! (precious!)
Ruth, Herzliya, Israel

We use sub-titles. My hearing is poor. My spouse can hear a pin drop in Montana. But, the sub-titles include comments that nobody could hear. I wish they were easier to turn off and on. I wish we could shrink the picture and put the sub-titles below or beside it. Sadly, the channel with the least sub-titles is BBC-America.
cecilchesser, andover, minnisota, usa

I think there ought to be more films with subtitles available at the cinema. When I went to see The Incredibles, there were subtitles shown throughout. I thought they would be off-putting but the only time I really noticed the subtitles is when the deaf guy sat in front of me laughed- he was a fast reader and had got to the punchline before Mr Incredible did!
Caz, Cambs

We often watch "The West Wing" with subtitles in addition to the sound, as the dialogue is pacy and sometimes the Americanisms difficult to decipher. I've also found it useful for continuing to watch a programme when someone else in the room is on the phone.
Sally-Ann, Walsall

Perhaps putting the subtitles on while your small kids are watching their shows could help with their reading. I only got this idea because of the tweenie picture. Anyone do this?
uh huh, Cornwall

Although I use subtitles, much to my wife's annoyance, I would not have to if actors learned to speak clearly.
Phil Thomas, Merseyside

I used subtitles for about two years, when I brought my TV with me from Germany. The sound card in the TV didn't work over here, but the TV picked up the picture no problem so I used the subtitles instead of buying an expensive new telly. Also when I lived in Germany some of the programmes broadcast in German had subtitles in both English and German, and as my German isn't very good, they allowed me to watch more programmes than I might normally have.
Leah Fairman, London

Joy of Joys, the snooker world championship is nearly upon us. The subtitlers really have their work cut out adding live text to a snooker match. My wife and I have howled at some of the mistakes made. I suggest to anyone who wants a laugh to add the subtitles for it, it makes it so much more fun.
scott heatherley, birmingham

I suffer slight hearing loss through mild tinitus, and find subtitles invaluable - particularly with young children in the house who would be disturbed by the excessive volumes required to pick up the nuances of dialog. I just wish Sky's subtitles were formattted as well as BBC teletext's!
Greg Mortimer, UK

This realy made me smile. My wife hated subtitles but since rearing two children...the noise...plot lines...distractions...she is just as addicted as me. What will we do if 888 ever goes?
Mark Cooper, Nottingham

Yes, I am one of those 6 million with "perfect" hearing that use subtitles. I am by no means an addict, and don┐t require them to be present to enjoy a film, but for certain movies (ala Quentin Tarantino┐s films fast paced conversations) it has revealed long-hidden dialogue between the actors, and a film can be enjoyed with "fresh ears" one more time. What I have been pondering for some time now is how long it will be before alternative subtitles become all the rage. Like adding your own "what they are actually saying" captions to the likes of Political Speeches, saucy on-screen romances &etc. This is very simple to do when you have electronic media, as the subtitles are simple stored in a text file (.sub) with timestamps indicating when you want text to appear on the screen.
Ben McInerney, London

I think you'll find that a lot of parents use them so they can actually tell what's going on over the clamour of kids playing.
John King, Southport

I find them helpful, as I watch a lot of British TV and miss some words due to the "accent" issue (yes, yes, I know I'm the one with the accent!!!)
E Mily, NYC, US

Subtitle actually helping my family to learn English and increase vocabulary. Seeing and hearing things are the best way to learn. So the taboo " subtitle for deaf" should be thrown out and should be used to develop oneself more.
Basanta Luintel, Watford

I was told by someone who works in television that the errors in subtitling of the news - usually phonetically correct - are due to the use of voice recognition software which has no awareness of context?
Bob Anderson, Banstead, Surrey

I find subtitles useful when the background (so called) music in some documentaries is too loud tending to obscure the commentary, especially where the voice is quite soft. The background noise is often quite annoying so it's good to be able to switch off the sound and watch the subtitle
john, leeds

In addition to those in the article, another reason to use subtitles is to learn a foreign language. Kids these days watch films to death, and know every line. By switching a dvd language preference, and using subtitles, kids can learn a foreign language, and catch the nuances of the language at the same time.
Carl, Reno, Nevada, USA

My partner Anja (who's German) finds the subtitles helpful to decipher the more broad dialects (!) of the English language, just as I find watching German subtitles when in Germany assists my understanding of the language.
Ric Euteneuer, Stevenage, England

One of the best experience- enhancing uses of sub-titles I can recall is watching the Eurovision Song Contest a few years back. The hilarity of the song translations and the opportunity of seeing the satirical comments from Terry Wogan in print makes great entertainment out of even the worst contender's efforts.
Ian, London, UK

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