How Subtitles Took Over TV

The first time it happened, I assumed it was a Millennial thing. Our younger neighbors had come over with their kids and a projector for backyard movie night—Clueless, I think, or maybe The Goonies.

“Oh,” I said as the opening scene began, “you left the subtitles on.”

“Oh,” the husband said, “we always leave the subtitles on.”

Now, I don’t like to think of myself as a snob—snobs never do—but in that moment, I felt something gurgling up my windpipe that can only be described as snobbery, a need to express my aesthetic horror at the needless gashing of all those scenes. All that came out, though, was: Why? They don’t like missing any of the dialogue, he said, and sometimes it’s hard to hear, or someone is trying to sleep, or they’re only half paying attention, and the subtitles are right there waiting to be flipped on, so … why not?

Because now I’m reading TV, not watching it. Because now, instead of focusing my attention on the performances, the costumes, the cinematography, the painstakingly mixed sound, and how it all works together to tell a story and transport me into an alternate world, my eyes keep getting yanked downward to read words I can already hear. My soul can’t bear the notion of someone watching The Sopranos for the first time and, as Tony wades into the pool, looking down to the bottom of the screen to read [ducks quack]. Subtitles serve an important purpose for people with hearing or cognitive impairments, or for translation from a foreign language. They’re not for fluent English speakers watching something in fluent English.

This monologue was all internal, though, because I’m in my mid-40s and don’t want to sound like an old man shouting at a cloud. We left the subtitles on that night, and I noticed that even though I knew every word of Clueless (or maybe it was The Goonies), I was still reading along. For the life of me I couldn’t understand how this didn’t drive everyone else crazy too. I said nothing, though. Millennials! What’ll they think of next?

Then, a couple of months later, over New Year’s Eve, my wife and I were about to start watching Don’t Look Up with another couple, Ken Leung and Nancy Bulalacao, when Nancy asked if we minded her turning on the subtitles. Ken is a cast member on the HBO series Industry, and Nancy works in New York theater production, and they’re both a bit older than us—squarely Gen X. They watch almost everything now with the subtitles on, she told us, even Ken’s own show, which is full of rapid-fire financial jargon coming at you in about a dozen languages and a riot of accents. She said it almost like a confession, as if bracing for judgment. But I was too stunned to judge.

Both of them have spent their entire adult lives working in movies, television, theater—the visual arts, where voice and imagery are sacrosanct tools of communication with the audience. Surely a screen actor like Ken would be aghast at the notion of so many people choosing to miss so much of the detail and nuance that he builds into his performances?

Nah. Following the story is the most important thing, he told me recently when I asked him about it for this article, and if you’re getting knocked out of the story because you can’t follow the dialogue, then by all means turn on the subtitles. It’s fine. You have his permission.

I grew alarmed by the way subtitles seem to be creeping into our homes—an addictive substance like TikTok, which, by the way, deserves some blame for this shift, conditioning multiple generations to watch content with text plastered all over it. A war is raging in living rooms and bedrooms across America—a Great Subtitle War. On one side: the bombastic visual effects of post–Game of Thrones mega-budget TV. On the other side: hearing the words. On one side: people like me, the purists and refuseniks. On the other: our friends and spouses, people who just want to follow the plot. The widespread use of subtitles felt, to me, like a lurch backward toward the silent-film era. But I didn’t want to be too doctrinaire. Maybe some exceptions could be made.

Then one night a few weeks ago, I walked into the bedroom to find my wife watching Abbott Elementary with the subtitles on. I’d lost her too.

Just three years ago, the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho took the stage at the Golden Globes to accept the Best Foreign Language Film award for Parasite and made a heartfelt speech urging us all to watch more stuff with subtitles.

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” he said, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

A month later, Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture. About a month after that, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, and much of the world went into quarantine. Cooped-up Americans were primed for a little experimental viewing; demand for Asian-language content spiked in the U.S. in the months after Parasite became available for streaming, according to data from Parrot Analytics, an entertainment-analytics company. It spiked again, a Parrot spokesman told me, after the September 2021 premiere of Squid Game, another South Korean export, which probably did more than any other single work of culture to bring down Bong’s one-inch wall. The words at the bottom of the screen don’t appear to have distracted anyone from all that arterial spray.

Now subtitles are everywhere, and in fact, they may already be our default mode. According to Preston Smalley, Roku’s vice president of viewer product, a 2022 internal survey revealed that 58 percent of subscribers use subtitles: 36 percent of them switch the subtitles on because of a diagnosed hearing impairment; 32 percent do it out of force of habit. (The remaining third cite a stew of situational issues, such as kids sleeping nearby, other people in the room, and poor audio quality.) Many of the people using subtitles, in other words, do not need them.

And as it turns out, it is a Millennial thing, or at least Millennials are leading the way. A full two-thirds of Roku’s Millennial customers use subtitles, more than any other generation, including seniors, though Smalley attributes that in part to technical hurdles, which is a polite way of saying that older users don’t always know how to turn them on.

Watching a Korean-language film such as Parasite with subtitles, of course, isn’t the same as leaving them on for Abbott Elementary. One experience requires them for most English speakers, the other super does not. But they’re also exactly the same thing. You’re still reading words at the bottom of the screen, it’s the same eye movement, the same mental-conditioning process—so what’s the difference if the actual language being spoken is English or Korean or some distant alien tongue from the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Subtitles, in other words, are a door that swings both ways. They can usher you into a rich new cultural experience, only to flick you in the ear during the experience itself.

Once the subtitles are on the screen, my friend Ken said, you feel, subconsciously, that “there’s somebody else in the room. There’s a third person, and they’re telling you what’s being said—they’re being very quiet, they’re minding their own business, but they’re here.” And of course that affects the experience. Imagine, he said during our Zoom call, “if our conversation right now was being subtitled live.”

I get it; not everything is art. Most things we watch don’t require or deserve such reverence. You don’t need spotless mise-en-scène to get the full experience of Is It Cake? But what if it’s The Sopranos? My wife and I recently watched Dead Ringers, which was so visually clever and twisted and sumptuous that I can only imagine how great it would’ve been without subtitles. If you ask me, there’s no defense for anything that requires us to take our eyes off Rachel Weisz, let alone two Rachel Weiszes.

Set aside the qualitative debate over whether this cultural shift is better or worse—let’s at least agree that it’s different. Ken says he appreciates the way subtitles help him and his wife follow along, but he also now finds himself doing something he calls “lazy listening”: “You begin to rely on the subtitles,” he said, “and then without them, you’re suddenly like, I never had an issue hearing things before. How come I do now?

The writer-director Hannah Fidell—whose Hulu series, A Teacher, starring Kate Mara as a predatory high-school teacher, was based on her 2013 indie film on the same subject—is likewise worried that subtitles are changing viewers’ habits. I assumed that a filmmaker would feel most violated on behalf of their camera shots, but Fidell was, if anything, more aghast at the trouncing of her sound mix. Subtitles make you literal-minded, she says, and oftentimes, the scripted words transcribed on the screen say one thing while the actor’s performance of them says another. I asked Fidell how she would feel if a friend turned on the subtitles while watching the pilot episode of A Teacher.

She went quiet for a moment. “I would be so pissed,” she said.

Game of Thrones, which premiered in 2011 and ended in 2019, shifted the home-viewing paradigm in any number of ways, but it was also the tipping point in this struggle between the audio and the visual. Game of Thrones, Andrew Miano, a longtime film producer, told me, is when we all started turning up the volume to hear the dialogue. Miano made The Farewell, starring Awkwafina, about three-quarters of which is in Mandarin with English subtitles. His issue isn’t with subtitles; it’s with the swelling ranks of always-on-ers, a group that now includes his wife. “It drives me crazy,” he said.

House of the Dragon—last summer’s Game of Thrones prequelis what broke me. How was anyone supposed to follow that show without subtitles? House Targaryen. House Velaryon. Rhaenys. Rhaena. Rhaenyra. The Sea Snake. The Crabfeeder. Now three years have passed. Now 10 years have passed. Now a different actor is playing Rhaenyra, but the same actor is playing Rhaenys. Dragons shrieking and throwing flames over all of it. What the hell is going on here?

I still didn’t turn subtitles on, though, until halfway through the season, when the cast reshuffled after the second time jump and my options were either (a) turn on the subtitles or (b) pause and rewatch every scene multiple times, requiring an average of three viewing hours per episode. Besides, all of the shots on that show are too dark anyway.

The good news, according to Onnalee Blank, the four-time Emmy Award–winning sound mixer on Game of Thrones, is that it’s not your fault that you can’t hear well enough to follow this stuff. It’s not your TV’s fault either, or your speakers—your sound system might be lousy, but that’s not why you can’t hear the dialogue. “It has everything to do with the streaming services and how they’re choosing to air these shows,” Blank told me.

Specifically, it has everything to do with LKFS, which stands for “Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale” and which, for the sake of simplicity, is a unit for measuring loudness. Traditionally it’s been anchored to the dialogue. For years, going back to the golden age of broadcast television and into the pay-cable era, audio engineers had to deliver sound levels within an industry-standard LKFS, or their work would get kicked back to them. That all changed when streaming companies seized control of the industry, a period of time that rather neatly matches Game of Thrones’ run on HBO. According to Blank, Game of Thrones sounded fantastic for years, and she’s got the Emmys to prove it. Then, in 2018, just prior to the show’s final season, AT&T bought HBO’s parent company and overlaid its own uniform loudness spec, which was flatter and simpler to scale across a large library of content. But it was also, crucially, un-anchored to the dialogue.

“So instead of this algorithm analyzing the loudness of the dialogue coming out of people’s mouths,” Blank explained to me, “it analyzes the whole show as loudness. So if you have a loud music cue, that’s gonna be your loud point. And then, when the dialogue comes, you can’t hear it.” Blank remembers noticing the difference from the moment AT&T took the reins at Time Warner; overnight, she said, HBO’s sound went from best-in-class to worst. During the last season of Game of Thrones, she said, “we had to beg [AT&T] to keep our old spec every single time we delivered an episode.” (Because AT&T spun off HBO’s parent company in 2022, a spokesperson for AT&T said they weren’t able to comment on the matter.)

Netflix still uses a dialogue-anchor spec, she said, which is why shows on Netflix sound (to her) noticeably crisper and clearer: “If you watch a Netflix show now and then immediately you turn on an HBO show, you’re gonna have to raise your volume.” Amazon Prime Video’s spec, meanwhile, “is pretty gnarly.” But what really galls her about Amazon is its new “dialogue boost” function, which viewers can select to “increase the volume of dialogue relative to background music and effects.” In other words, she said, it purports to fix a problem of Amazon’s own creation. Instead, she suggested, “why don’t you just air it the way we mixed it?”

The silver lining of tech companies trying to fix problems of their own creation is that, every so often, they stumble onto an ingenious solution. Roku offers a replay feature in which the subtitles show up when you press the 20-second rewind button. It saved Miano’s marriage, and it might save yours. Roku also offers an “automatic speech clarity” feature, though Roku is more akin to an operating system for your television than a streaming platform—it’s just the middle man, sonically speaking—so the option is more of a bandage than a cure. Home-theater providers such as Sonos, meanwhile, offer their own dialogue-boost capabilities, in case you want to pay a second tech company to fix what the first one broke.

Or you can just turn on the subtitles. In any version of our streaming future, subtitles will be the simplest, most cost-effective solution, so maybe what the snobs among us should hope for is that the creators themselves will seize back some creative license over exactly how those words look on the screen. Brett Pawlak, the director of photography for Disney+’s new television series American Born Chinese, told me that although he doesn’t compose shots to leave room for words at the bottom of the screen, the rising ubiquity of subtitles reminds him of the creative hurdle presented about a decade ago, when some directors started incorporating characters’ text messages. The visual challenge, in other words, requires a visual solution.

The appearance of the subtitles on your screen also varies widely by platform—the streamers control that dial too—and some of them put more effort into the task than others. But their default typefaces are all clunky and robotic and bear no connection to the content. If they can beam Severance into our homes and invent dialogue-boost features, surely they can figure out how to let us pick our own typeface, or shrink the font size, or move the words to a different spot on the screen. You know who’d really benefit from that? Deaf people! Non-English speakers. Anyone who finds that subtitles make them feel included in the culture, rather than shut out of it. And maybe the ubiquity of words at the bottom of the screen will inspire filmmakers and showrunners to craft their own subtitles as a viewing option—you can watch this Jordan Peele art-house horror series with Hulu’s charmless sans serif or with Peele’s signature typeset.

Or, to echo Blank, you could just air it the way she mixed it. Her home still frowns on unnecessary subtitles, but that might change as streamer platforms continue to wreak havoc with her sound mixes. “The world is getting louder,” she said. And if subtitles offer us a way to turn down the volume a little bit, maybe that’s not so terrible. She knows a losing battle when she hears one.