Subtitles and closed captions (CCs) are written inscriptions that appear at the bottom or top of a movie screen or a video clip. While it may seem as though these two terms are interchangeable, that’s not actually true. In fact, the nature of subtitles and closed captions, as well as the objectives of each, are quite different from one another.

The primary difference between subtitles and closed captioning can be summed up this way:

• Subtitles: Usually appearing at the bottom of the screen, subtitles are written transcriptions of what is being said by a character in a movie or video.

• Closed captions: Unlike subtitles, closed captions include detailed descriptions of what is happening in a movie or video, including identification of who is speaking, the emotions being portrayed in the film, sound effects, etc.

The objectives of subtitles and closed captions are also quite different. Subtitles are provided for the convenience of the audience who is quite capable of listening to the soundtrack if they so desire. Closed captions, on the other hand, are intended for the hearing-impaired viewers, which explains why they include details not provided by subtitles.

Why Do We Need Them?

While it may be obvious how important closed captions are for the hearing-impaired, the importance of subtitles may not be so immediately apparent. In fact, both CCs and subtitles are quite useful for a variety of reasons:

• Inside the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires (and the US Congress has mandated by law) that closed captioning be available for all TV programs to ensure that hearing-impaired individuals have full access to news and other information broadcast over the airwaves. DVDs, home videos and video games, on the other hand, do not fall under this FCC requirement.

• Subtitles come in handy for people – whether they’re hearing-impaired or not – in a variety of different situations. Whether you’re trying to watch a video in a noisy location where it’s impossible to hear the audio, or attempting to watch a video in a situation where the audio might by annoying to other people around you, subtitles provide a convenient means of understanding what’s happening in a video without the benefit of sound.

Translated subtitles allow movie fans to enjoy foreign films even though they may not understand the language being spoken by the film’s characters.

Although there are distinct differences between subtitles and closed captions, there’s no doubt that both offer many benefits to viewers of videos and television programming.