Closed captioning vs subtitles: how to make the right choice

Closed captioning vs subtitles

What is the difference between closed captioning and subtitles? The association that subtitles have with translation is obvious — but is that it?

Yes and no. Subtitles are considered specific to translated audio. However, there are deeper differences that separate the two, and some translated subtitles start to edge into the detail that closed captions most accurately describe.

Adding text to your video is an increasingly common practice, especially for digital media. Search engines give a boost to video posts with transcripts included. There are also regulatory and accessibility concerns that lead many to include subtitle options in their film. 

However, adding this extra level of information is often the last priority within the post-production process. When it’s time to make a choice, it’s all too common to feel confused about the best decision to make, and the most cost-effective way to get quality captions created and aligned with your content.  

Here, we’re going to demystify the differences between closed captions and subtitles, provide advice around how to make the best choice, and give guidance on the steps you should take to get the outcome you need. Let’s get started.  

What are closed captions?

Closed captions are sets of text within video that are specifically of use to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Closed captions offer a verbatim transcription of not only dialogue that is being said in the video, but also annotations. These annotations convey non-verbal sounds, such as doors slamming and music playing. They may also indicate tone and intonation, such as showing when a character is shouting or saying something sarcastically. 

Furthermore, though rarely the case with subtitles, closed captions are usually in the same language as the original audio, though many online streaming and video services are proving an exception to this.

Why are closed captions useful?

There are several benefits to choosing closed captioning for a video over subtitles, depending on your needs. As they’re primarily designed for those who cannot fully hear the audio, they offer a truly accessible way for more viewers to engage with the content. What’s more, depending on where your video is published or shown, it may be a mandatory part of regulatory compliance to make closed captions available too, such as with terrestrial television.

Closed captions have additional benefits beyond the expected. For one, a verbatim transcript of the audio in a video can be good for search engine optimisation (SEO). It gives search engines a readable text form of the content, including keywords, which helps the search engines index them for SERPs. 

Nowadays, a lot of people like to watch videos online without sound too — in fact, 85% of Facebook videos are watched without sound, demonstrating that closed captions are necessary for video content. This is why you should consider making this option available for your content. 

What are subtitles?

On the other hand, subtitles are not meant to be as verbatim a transcription of the audio as closed captions are. Unlike closed captions, they are usually aimed at viewers who are able to hear the audio, but may not be able to understand the dialogue due to the language and dialect differences. As such, subtitles are often closely associated with, and part of, dialogue translation. In the majority of cases, they don’t contain annotations of non-verbal sounds.

Subtitles are not always designed to be as accurate a record of the dialogue as they can be. In most cases, there are going to be differences between a direct translation and the kind of localisation that goes into producing subtitles. Because the subtitles aren’t for native speakers, the text has to be adjusted to be more easily understood by the reader.

Why are subtitles useful?

Subtitles have the benefit of being cheaper than closed captions, in part because they are often less detailed. However, if translation/localisation costs are included, there may not be as much of a price difference. Subtitles can help you make content more accessible to a global audience, meaning you can reach a wider audience of people.

They also have the benefit of being good for SEO, much in the same way that closed captions are. Again, this makes it easier for people to find your content and become more well-known in your industry.

Open captions vs closed captions

Closed captions are but one kind of captioning. As the name implies, there are also open captions. Open captions are an alternative to closed captions but, technically, subtitles could also fall under the broader definition of closed captions.

Closed captions are not embedded directly into the video. As such, they can usually be turned off by interacting with certain features on the player. Open captions, on the other hand, are embedded into the video so they cannot be turned off. Many subtitled videos technically have open captions.

However, open captions are becoming less common in the age of digital media, where it’s much easier to add subtitles and captions after the video is produced rather than having to embed them directly into the video, so this can be more easily considered during post-production.

Closed captions vs subtitles: how to make the right choice?

If you’re looking at the question from a qualitative angle, there’s no denying that closed captions are the “higher quality” choice, when compared to subtitles. They cost more and tend to take longer to make, because it takes a longer time to fully transcribe audio, including annotations that are outside the dialogue. There are exceptions to this when it comes to translation and localisation costs, of course.

However, choosing between closed captions and subtitles isn’t really about what’s “better.” They are two options that most often fit two different aims. As such, you need to think about what you want. 

Subtitles are designed for viewers that can likely hear the audio but aren’t fluent in the language being used in the dialogue. They’re a good choice for those who want their content to reach global video platforms, and are usually developed before the release of the content. Again, they only show the text of the dialogue.

Closed captions, on the other hand, are designed for those who cannot hear the audio of the video, and display all audio, dialogue and otherwise, as text. Not only can it help you make your content more accessible and help it meet the regulatory demands of certain platforms, but many consider adding it to online videos simply due to the growing number of viewers who prefer to watch videos without sound.

Getting subtitles and closed captions created

The majority of transcription teams offer both subtitling and closed caption services. However, with captioning, whether closed or open, accuracy is key. For that reason, it’s important you partner with a team that has a reputation for quality and you can rely on to deliver accurate results.

When you outsource your subtitle and closed caption needs to professional, trusted services, whether translating or ensuring a verbatim transcription, you save yourself a lot of work. It can take professionals up to an hour to transcribe 15 minutes of audio — so it would take those who are less experienced even longer. Add to that the SEO work (for online videos), and aligning the text, and it’s simply too much work for many to handle while trying to get videos out there.

If you still aren’t sure what you need, consult a professional transcription service that offers closed caption and subtitling services. Their offerings may vary. Some services guarantee security with your data, so look out for this if you want to make sure your text doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and spoil the content before it’s ready for release. Whether you want subtitles or closed captions, do your research to ensure you pick a service that is effective, accurate, and practiced.

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Take Note

Take Note is a UK-based transcription service with world-class customer support alongside the highest standards of security and ethics. We deliver a comprehensive range of transcription services including Audio and Video Transcription, Video Captions and On-Site Note Taking.