At a quick glance, closed captions and subtitles look almost identical, but the differences that set them apart aren’t as subtle as they first appear. Choosing between the two can have a drastic impact on how audiences understand your video projects – and your decision could say a lot more about your brand than you realise.
The difference between closed captions and subtitles
Although closed captions (CCs) and subtitles look similar, they’re designed for two different purposes. Subtitles provide a text alternative for the dialogue of video footage – the spoken words of characters, narrators and other vocal participants.
Closed captions, on the other hand, not only supplement for dialogue but other relevant parts of the soundtrack – describing background noises, phones ringing and other audio cues that need describing.
Essentially, subtitles assume an audience can hear the audio, but need the dialogue provided in text form as well. Meanwhile, closed captioning assumes an audience cannot hear the audio and needs a text description of what they would otherwise be hearing.
Closed captions and subtitles in action
The most common use for subtitles would be a form of translating video footage for audiences of another language. The original audio is preserved, but viewers can understand the dialogue and still hear the soundtrack as it was intended.
You can probably guess by now that captioning is typically used for hearing impaired audiences, or situations where audio can’t be played. In this case viewers need more description – to help distinguish between different people talking, emotional changes in their voices or non-vocal audio, that’s relevant to the story, for example.
An important distinction
Hopefully, you can see why the distinction between the two is so important. On the one hand, CCs in situations where subtitles are sufficient can be distracting and potentially frustrating for viewers. Even worse though, would be using subtitles when captions are needed, potentially alienating your audience altogether.
Now, audience is the key word here, because subtitles and captions have the same goal: to extend your footage to a wider audience. These audiences may be slightly different, but your aim is to make your video accessible to everyone who has something to offer your brand.
The easiest example would be a foreign language film. Subtitles can make it accessible to audiences around the world, while captions mean hard of hearing audiences can also enjoy the film – and you’ll often see DVDs, Blu-rays and other releases with both for this very reason.
Should every video have subtitles and closed captions?
Whether you choose to use subtitles or closed captions depends on the audience you have in mind for your video projects. However, both are becoming increasingly important as the internet connects your footage to the entire world.
It’s not only a question of languages, but also the importance of web accessibility and ensuring nobody is excluded from your brand. It’s the digital equivalent of having wheelchair access to your business property, and there’s a case to argue every video should come with subtitles and closed captions, rather than choosing between the two.