Closed Captioning vs Subtitles: What’s the Difference and Which to Use

We’ve all seen social media videos, movies, television programs and tv shows with text displayed at the bottom of the screen. But you may have yet to notice the slight differences in how the text is displayed. To the trained eye, there is an important distinction between what type of text is displayed on-screen. We explain the differences and have a look at how you can reach new audiences.

Key takeaways

  • Closed captions are intended for viewers who can’t hear the audio (e.g. an English film with English Closed Captions).
  • Closed Captions can be turned ‘off’ or ‘on’. They are a direct transcription of the spoken words and sounds on the screen.
  • Open Captions can not be turned ‘off’ and are always ‘on’.
  • Subtitles usually refer to on-screen text translated from the audio transcript (e.g. you might watch a foreign language film and need to turn on English subtitles).
  • Closed captions and subtitles are more flexible and customisable than open captions. Still, open captions can be helpful in certain contexts where it is essential to ensure that the text is always visible.
  • Content creators and producers of foreign movies use subtitles to reach a global audience by breaking down the language barrier.
  • The most common position for subtitles and captions is at the bottom of the screen. However, they are sometimes moved depending on other text displayed in the content or for artistic direction.

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Closed captioning and subtitles are two essential features that can make video content accessible to a wider audience. They are helpful for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, who are learning a new language, and who are watching videos in a quiet or noisy environment. Closed captioning and subtitles can also be necessary for global audiences watching foreign films or videos in different languages.

Closed captioning provides on-screen text that transcribes the audio in a video. In contrast, subtitles provide on-screen translated text for viewers who do not speak the language. By including closed captioning and subtitles in video content, producers and creators can make their content more inclusive and accessible to all viewers, regardless of their hearing abilities or language skills.

Lady recording a podcast

Subtitling and Captioning have become very popular among online content creators for being able to reach wider audiences and increase engagement.

Understanding the 3 different types of captions and subtitles

What is Closed Captioning?

Closed captioning is a feature that displays text on the screen to provide a transcription of the audio in a video. Closed captions are usually turned off by default but can be enabled by the viewer if needed. They are called “closed” because they can be turned on and off (i.e. close captions) at will, as opposed to “open” captions, which are burned into the video and cannot be turned off (i.e. always open captions).

Closed captioning is particularly important for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, as it allows them to understand the audio in a video. It can also be helpful for people watching videos in noisy environments or learning a new language and wanting to see the text alongside the audio.

What are Subtitles?

Subtitles are similar to closed captions in that they display text on the screen to provide audio transcription in a video. However, the main difference is subtitles are usually designed for people watching videos in a language they do not understand rather than for people who are hard of hearing or deaf.

Subtitles are usually burned into the video and cannot be turned off. They are designed to provide a translation of the audio in a video so that viewers who do not speak the language can understand what is being said.

What is Open Captioning?

In addition to closed captions and subtitles, a third type of on-screen text can be used in videos: open captions. Open captions are similar to closed captions in that they transcription the audio in a video. Still, they differ because they are burned into the video and cannot be turned off. This means that open captions are always visible and cannot be hidden by the viewer.

Open captions can be useful in specific contexts, such as videos where the producer wants to ensure that the text is always visible and not subject to viewer preferences. They are, however, less flexible than closed captions, which can be turned on and off at will.

It’s worth noting that open captions are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “subtitles,” but they are actually a different feature. Subtitles provide on-screen translation of the audio for viewers who do not speak the language. In contrast, open captions provide audio transcription for all viewers.

The difference between Closed Captioning, Subtitles and Open Captioning

The main difference between closed captioning, open captioning and subtitles is that closed and open captions are intended for deaf or hard of hearing audiences, while subtitles are intended for audiences who can hear the audio but prefer to read along or don’t understand the language (eg. foreign film subtitles).

Infographic of the difference between subtitles and captions

The key differences between subtitles, closed captions and open captions

Here are some key differences between the 3 methods of captioning and subtitling:

Closed Captions:

  • Display on the screen only if the viewer turns them on
  • Can be used to provide on-screen audio transcription of the language of the video
  • Can be used to provide additional information, such as sound effects and speaker identification
  • Can be customised by the viewer in terms of size, font, colour, and placement (depending on the platform and device being used)

Subtitles:

  • Display on the screen only if the viewer turns them on
  • Provide an on-screen translation of the audio for viewers who do not speak the language
  • Can be customised by the viewer in terms of size, font, colour, and placement (depending on the platform and device being used)

Open Captions:

  • Are always visible and cannot be turned off
  • Are burned into the video itself
  • Can be used to provide a transcription of the audio in the video
  • Can be used to provide additional information, such as sound effects and speaker changes and identification
  • Can be customised by the viewer in terms of size, font, colour, and placement

Accessibility: Why Closed Captioning and Subtitles Matter

In addition to being a helpful tool for viewers who are hard of hearing or deaf, closed captioning is also an essential aspect of accessibility.

Captions not only help those who are deaf or hard of hearing, but it helps those who are non-native speakers, it helps those in hard to hear environment, it helps in a gym where the TV is on mute, it helps in a bar where you can’t hear the sound — Marlee Matlin, deaf actress and accessibility activist

For example, in the United States, closed captioning should be provided for all videos, including those on websites and social media platforms. U.S. law requires that video content be accessible to individuals with hearing impairments according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Closed captioning can also benefit viewers in noisy or quiet environments or those who are not native speakers of the language used in the video. With closed captioning, viewers can follow along with the video even if background noise or the audio quality is poor.

To ensure that video content is accessible to all viewers, it’s important to provide accurate and timely closed captions. These captions should be embedded in the video file and synchronised with the audio. There are many closed captioning services and software options available for producers to use, and choosing one that provides accurate and high-quality captions is essential.

In summary, closed captioning is not only a helpful tool for hard-of-hearing viewers, but it’s also an essential aspect of accessibility that helps to ensure that video content is accessible to all individuals, regardless of their abilities or language skills.

8 Reasons why you need to add captions or subtitles to your content

By displaying the dialogue and other audio elements as text on the screen, subtitles and captions allow people to understand and engage with the content without relying on audio. This is especially important for the purposes of accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and shows that you care about the equality and diversity of your audiences.

There are also a number of other reasons to add captions or subtitles to your content, these include:

Comprehension for Second Language Learners

Subtitles and captions can also be helpful for people who are learning a second language, as they provide a written version of the dialogue that can be easier to understand and follow along with than spoken language.

Improved Comprehension for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Some people with cognitive disabilities may find it easier to process information in written form, making subtitles and captions a valuable tool for understanding and engaging with video content.

Improved Comprehension in Noisy Environments

In environments where the audio may be difficult to hear or understand, such as on public transportation, in a busy café, or in a loud work environment, subtitles and captions can provide a way to follow the content without relying on audio.

Increased Accessibility for Mobile Users in Quiet Environments

Watching videos on a mobile device often involves watching in public places or in environments where audio may be disruptive or inappropriate. Subtitles and captions provide a way to watch the content without disturbing others or without having to use headphones.

Viewer Engagement

Subtitling or captioning video content can increase the engagement of video content. When users can follow the content with subtitles, they are more likely to watch the video in its entirety. The longer the user engagement, the more likely search engines will recognise the video as valuable content, which can increase its ranking. This brings us to the next advantage.

Improved crawlability

Search engines use bots to crawl through websites to find relevant content to index. Subtitling or captioning video content provides relevant text for search engines to crawl through, making it easier for the video content to be indexed.

Increased keyword density

Subtitling or captioning video content can increase the keyword density of the video content. The text of the subtitles or captions can be used to include relevant keywords, making it easier for search engines to understand the content of the video.

Wider audience reach

When videos are subtitled in multiple languages, they have a better chance of being discovered by international audiences. This increases the potential reach of the video and can naturally improve its ranking while creating new viewers or fans from across the globe.

There you have it! Now that you know the differences and aside from the commercial advantages, captioning and subtitling are effective ways to ensure accessible and equitable content for everyone, especially those who are hard of hearing, deaf or have limited language proficiency.

As someone who has needed captions for most of my life, I appreciate them as a tool that allows me to access the same content that others do. — Haben Girma, disability rights lawyer and advocate

How to Add Closed Captioning and Subtitles to Videos

Adding closed captioning and subtitles to videos can be a simple process, but it does require some additional work. Some video services offer built-in video captioning, but a professional service or tool is often more suitable.

Several DIY (do it yourself) software programs and tools can be used to add closed captioning and subtitles to videos, such as SCRIBE by LEXIGO, which allows you to easily and automatically transcribe and subtitle videos in just a couple of clicks.

Alternatively, LEXIGO’s transcription and subtitling services offers another cost-effective ‘done-for-you’ option.

When adding closed captioning or subtitles to a video, it’s important to ensure that the text is accurate and synchronised with the audio. You can do this manually or with the help of automatic transcription software such as SCRIBE (demo below).

SRT Files, Subtitle Files, and SDH Subtitles

Under the umbrella terms of subtitles, closed and open captions, there are a number of file types that can be used depending on the application. These include SRT files, subtitle files, and SDH subtitles.

SRT Files

SRT stands for “SubRip Text.” An SRT file is a subtitle file that contains the timing and text of subtitles for a video. SRT files are popular because they are a simple and flexible way to add subtitles to a video. They can be used with a wide range of media players and software. They are typically used for videos played on a computer or digital device. They can be created and edited with a basic text editor and are usually provided as a separate file from the video.

Subtitle Files

Subtitle files are similar to SRT files, but they can come in a variety of different file formats. Some popular subtitle file formats include .sub, .sbv, .ssa, .ass, .stl, and .xml. These files typically contain the timing and text of subtitles and information about font, size, and colour. Subtitle files can be used with a wide range of media players and software. They are a flexible and customisable way to add subtitles to a video.

SDH Subtitles

Subtitles of this type are designed to be more accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. SDH is an acronym for “Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.” SDH subtitles not only provide a transcription of the audio in the video but also include additional information about sound effects, background sounds, music, and other non-speech elements that may be important for understanding the content. SDH subtitles are typically used in broadcast television but can also be used in different types of videos.

VTT files

A VTT file, also known as a Web Video Text Tracks file, is a format used to provide captions or subtitles for videos on the web. VTT files contain text synchronised with the video content and displayed on the screen as the video plays.

VTT files can be used to provide captions or subtitles in a variety of languages, making video content more accessible to viewers who may not speak the video’s original language or who may be deaf or hard of hearing. VTT files are often used on video-sharing platforms like YouTube or Vimeo; and on video creator platforms or sites that host video content.

VTT files can be created using a text editor or specialised captioning software and easily uploaded to video hosting platforms or embedded in web pages using HTML code. VTT files typically include time codes that indicate when the text should be displayed on the screen and formatting options like font size and colour.

So, which type of caption or subtitle file should you use?

Before deciding on file types, you should first decide if you will be using closed captions, open captions or subtitles, hopefully this guide has helped you in being able to make a decision but we’re always here to help if you’re unsure.

The below summary of the file types should help you decide which one is best suited to your needs:

  • VTT files are essential for making video content more accessible and engaging to a diverse range of viewers.
  • SRT files and subtitle files are commonly used to add subtitles to videos. They provide a flexible and customisable way to add on-screen text.
  • SDH subtitles offer additional information to make videos more accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
  • At the end of the day, you should choose the type of on-screen text that best meets the needs of your audience and the content’s context (say that 6 times fast!).

About LEXIGO

LEXIGO is a cloud-based translation services and technology company for business, enterprise and government. Employing a hybrid approach, LEXIGO combines the intelligence of a global team of translators with its award-winning technology platform to deliver fast, scalable and accurate translation services in 171 languages.

Driven by a global network of native translators, LEXIGO’s own cloud technology harnesses advanced AI to deliver authentic, peer-reviewed and culturally-informed translation.

With proprietary technology at the forefront, LEXIGO has been awarded as one of Australia’s most innovative companies in the Smart100 index, a top 10 SME in the DELL Business Excellence Awards and recognised in Rust Report’s ‘Who’s who of Aussie ICT’.

About SCRIBE

Leveraging advanced-AI, SCRIBE is a web-based tool that makes it easier and faster to transcribe, caption, translate and subtitle your video and audio content across 171 supported languages.

Reach more audiences and create accessible content in any language, for any platform, anywhere.

  • Transcribe speech-to-text in record time
  • Create on-brand captions instantly
  • Translate and create subtitles in minutes