A little while ago, I wrote here about the US requirement for subtitles – closed captions – to be included on IP-delivered content as well as television. But what about the rest of the world?
The first thing to say is that the world is a pretty big place, which means that the practice of subtitling and captioning, and the drivers behind it, can vary wildly. So, for example, in Western Europe broadcasters are expected to provide subtitles as part of a package of access services, helping those who might otherwise not fully enjoy television.
In the UK, for example, the Communications Act 2003 expects a broadcaster to provide subtitling for a minimum of 80% of its output, along with audio description on 10% and signing on 5%.This is part of the broadcaster’s public responsibilities.
Captioning as an Aid to Boost Literacy Efforts
Also a public service, but in a very different way, is the situation in China and India, where again regulations expect large amounts of content to be subtitled, but here there is a second purpose alongside helping the hearing impaired.
Dr Brij Kothari, an Indian academic and a social entrepreneur, discovered through research that showing subtitles subconsciously forces the brain to read as well as listen, and so boosts literacy in communities where traditionally it was low. This way, captioning becomes a simple and inexpensive boost to a general literacy campaign. Karaoke can claim many of the same benefits, too.
Captioning Helps with Language Ambiguity
In China, Korea and Japan, which have very subtle languages where a simple shift in intonation can change the entire meaning of a word, written subtitles can help take away the ambiguity of the spoken dialogue. In a country the size of China, inevitably accents vary hugely even when they are speaking “standard” Chinese, so again subtitles can help clarify what is being said.
Japanese broadcasters have taken the national love of precise ornamentation and playful decoration and applied it to subtitles. Words may appear one by one, or in different colors, fonts and sizes, to capture and reflect the spirit of what is being said.
Taken to the other extreme, a BBC article on subtitles written as far back as 2006 suggests that subtitles can help you keep up with the plot even if you are eating noisy snack food while watching television.
Even if some of the original thinking behind subtitling television came from a public service obligation, today they are widely appreciated and make your programs accessible to a wider audience, whatever the reason they turn on the subtitles. In our highly competitive, multi-channel world, any way you can boost the audience is surely a good thing.
And if it is a good thing on television, then why would you not want to do it on your online services too? The only reason can be the fear of technical disasters, tracking subtitle formats and edited content through the delivery pipeline to packaging.
As I said many times when addressing the subject, the key to making this work painlessly is to handle subtitles as a master format in metadata wrapped alongside the audio and video. Transcode at the point of delivery just as you do with the rest of the content. Simple – and clear.