Point/Counterpoint: Do subtitles help the viewing experience?

Two writers debate the value of watching shows with captions

Subtitles are a divisive subject among Netflix watchers.
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Yes

If you've ever watched a movie or TV show with me where I've been in control of the device settings, there's a 100 per cent chance it's been accompanied by subtitles. There's also a 50 per cent chance you've groaned the second a small caption written in an unassuming, plain white font appeared in the bottom eighth of the screen.

To the disbelief of many, I genuinely believe watching anything with English subtitles enhances the viewing experience, even if they're not used or needed for accessibility purposes.

Though it may not seem like it at first, turning on subtitles doesn't mean having to only read the words and neglect the rest of the screen. Your brain eventually processes the words in perfect harmony with their accompanying images. 

You'll also be able to focus more on the visuals when need be, or glance down towards the text when you miss a line or can't decipher what certain characters are saying at a given time. It's like looking at a promotional movie poster—sometimes you may zero in on the eye-catching image, or you might focus on the text to find the film’s cast. Either way, you're generally able to equally grasp the movie title and the poster's image.

Subtitles also help in distinguishing a well-written show from a carefully disguised train wreck.

Subtitles also help in distinguishing a well-written show from a carefully disguised train wreck.

I consider a show or movie's script to be its foundation. No matter how impressive the other production elements are, most programs can't sustain themselves across multiple hours of storytelling without solid plot, dialogue, and characters.

Subtitles can help me notice early on in a TV show that most of the dialogue fails to progress its plot by offering new information, or is comprised of sentences more likely to be spoken by robots than humans. With this poor writing put into the spotlight, I can jump ship before I get sucked in to an eighteen-hour commitment of wasted time—looking at you, Netflix's The Staircase.

—Josh Granovsky, Lifestyle Editor

No

Watching movies or TV shows with subtitles is more pain than convenience. With the dialogue constantly popping up on the screen in bold letters, it’s difficult to pay attention to words and images simultaneously. 

For someone who’s easily distracted, subtitles force me to decide whether writing or action holds more value in a film or show. This can be a difficult choice to make—especially at the beginning of a show, when your eyes are adjusting to the light and movement on the screen. 

With subtitles running, I often find myself needing to deliberately shift my eyes between the words and images. I usually turn off the subtitles part way through if I can.

Subtitles can create a blatant distraction from the formal elements of your entertainment. This is apparent if you’re trying to analyze a film—whether it’s for a course or hobby—because it’s difficult to focus on the camera movement, dialogue, and sound simultaneously.  

It’s a given subtitles will cut off part of the screen, so why use them if it’s not necessary? 

Most movies aren’t meant to have subtitles, and in effect part of the action gets covered or blocked off. It’s particularly noticeable if you’re watching something on a small screen—which, nowadays, most of us are. 

Subtitles aren’t key to your understanding or enjoyment of a film. They’re useful for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or are watching a foreign film. 

Outside those circumstances, they tend to be more distracting than helpful.

You don’t need subtitles to judge whether you like a film or TV show, and if the sound quality is good enough to let you hear all of a program’s action, subtitles have limited benefit.

—Allie Fenwick, Contributor

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