The rise of closed captions: The muttering, mumbling, and murmuring we can’t understand

Alexa Leiting, InDepth Editor

For Gen Z, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga was an intriguing series of fantasy and mythical romance. However, instead of teen vampires and werewolves filling the thoughts of the audience, a bothersome hiccup seemed to seize the attention of the cult following: Kristen Stewart’s mumbling problem. In the place of eyes being glued to the sparkling skin of Edward Cullen, pupils began to fall upon the closed captions in order to understand what his co-star was saying. 

Regardless of how misunderstood Stewart was, she does not stand alone. 

“It is an absolute must for me to use closed captions for the show “Love is Blind,” Junior Ari Ekoue replied when asked about a show it is necessary to use subtitles with.

“And not any season or actors in specific, but for all of the seasons and to understand all the actors, I have to use them.”

Like the majority of other student respondents, Ekoue explained that she can’t understand the actors due to how loudly and clearly they speak. 

“There’s a lot of private conversations that happen and the producers try to display them in the show, but you can’t understand what they’re saying at all. So, you have to constantly have subtitles on when you try to watch the show. And, if you look away for five seconds, which I do because I usually watch the show while doing dishes or eating dinner, you just you lose everything. You forget what’s happening in the show because you weren’t able to hear it and just becomes very awkward because I need to rewind.”

In 2022, Netflix reported that 40 percent of its global users have closed captions settings, also known as subtitles, on all of the time. In addition to this, 80 percent of the platform’s members use the tool at least once a month. However, these statistics majorly exceed the number of viewers who have identified themselves as having impaired hearing.  

In a poll of 130 students conducted at Millard South, similar results were found. Around 36 percent of students reported that they always use subtitles when watching online videos, TV, movies, or documentaries. About 27 percent surveyed said they almost always used captions. 14 percent of MSHS teens used captions half of the time, and only 21 percent reported that they used the tool infrequently. When questioned about why they used subtitles while watching media, the most commonly marked response (60 percent) was that students could not understand what the actors/speakers were saying. The next two biggest reasons for using closed captioning were “it helps me focus on the video” and “I like reading the closed captions.” A total of fifty percent of respondents marked those causes. Responses also suggested that subtitles tend to help the audience better understand a film or video and identify characters accurately. 

Senior movie goer, Thomas McCarthy claims to use subtitles all the time.

“There’s just so many noises,” He explains. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. And, if you miss the joke or something, then you have to go back and that’s kind of annoying. So, I can read a lot easier with subtitles on.”

Besides his casual use of closed captions, McCarthy also uses this handy tool to watch his school assigned Spanish videos.

“I cannot catch what they’re saying when I am watching videos in Spanish. So it’s a lot easier to see the words because then I can also see what they’re saying, instead of all this mumbo jumbo. I can kind of pick up the words and all the other things in the video with it. It’s easier to put it all together.” 

Junior Avari Geppert had similar tendencies when it came to her video consumption. 

“I feel like I can hear it better when I can see the words. It can be hard for me to hear and understand the words because I’m usually doing a lot of things at once when I’m watching TV, so I want to be able to actually understand everything that happens in the shows I’m watching while being able to do other things.”

Despite constantly using closed captions with her favorite shows such as “New Girl” and “The Good Place”, Geppert clarified that she does not turn on the tool when viewing things such as YouTube videos.

“I just turn on YouTube on for background noise. I don’t need to understand what’s going on. I will still try and be focused on the video but I don’t need as much media absorption from that. I guess I just want to take stuff away from movies and TV shows more than YouTube videos.”

Although there are multiple factors that contribute to the rise of closed captions, many of the previously mentioned reasons for the use of subtitles all tie back to advances in technology. Whether it sounds backwards or not, improvements in microphones and audio editing arguably has changed the way actors/speakers talk. 

Historically, it was standard for actors to project loudly towards a fixed microphone, typically overhead of speaking characters or hidden on set in a plant for example. Because of this, it was standard for actors and actresses to need to speak very clearly in order for the microphone to pick up their sound. With the advance of portable microphones, actors became allowed to speak more softly and naturally- or some might say, mumble. In addition to this, there is another motivation for people to click on the closed captions button: sounds, sounds, and more sounds. When audio technology became more developed, a whole wave of sounds were able to be produced. For example, instead of just a door slam being heard by the audience, the footsteps leading up to the door, the turn of the handle, and the creak of the wood might all be heard in addition to the slam.

Junior TV viewer Nicole Bergman brought up this specific factor as one of the reasons she finds captions necessary. 

“There is way more action and a lot more little sounds compared to how films used to be. It is so loud with all the sounds so I feel like I need to use captions. I can hear the voices better in older movies or shows because they don’t really have as many sound effects. Like now there’s so many little sound effects now but back then, there weren’t as many. But now the amount of sound effects are crazy.”

Other than the amount of sound effects troubling her understanding of a movie, she agreed with other student respondents in the poll acknowledging that they use subtitles when they are unable to use volume on their device. 

“Most of the time, I am watching TV at night, so then I need to have my TV quieter. I turn it down and then I just turn my pink closed captions on so I can watch Netflix at night,” Bergman stated.

With all the motivations to turn on this convenient function, one thing is clear: closed captions are on the rise and here to stay.