Closed vs Open Captions vs Subtitles

What's the difference, and when to use each

What’s the difference? 

Some videos have subtitles and others have captions. Aren’t they the same thing? Well, yes and no. 

If you’re watching a movie on Netflix, for example, and you go to turn on subtitles, you may notice that there are sometimes two options listed for English: one that just says “English” and another that says “English [CC]”. What’s the difference?

As a general rule, subtitles assume the viewer can hear the audio, while captions do not

To break that down further, subtitles are a direct transcript of the dialogue in a video, whether in the same language as the audio, or translated into another language. Subtitles allow viewers to read along with the video content as the video plays. This is most often used in foreign films, such as 2020 Best Picture winner Parasite, to provide a text alternative in a native language. Many viewers also find subtitles helpful when the audio is muddled or a speaker has a strong accent. In these moments, subtitles serve as a tool for listening comprehension. 

Captions effectively do all of the above and more. Sometimes referred to as “Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing” (or SDH), captions are generated to provide a text alternative for all auditory moments in a video. That means dialogue, but it also includes sound effects and other non verbal sounds, such as [phone rings] or [laughter] or [suspenseful music]. Sounds often play a huge role in establishing plot, tone, or meaning in a video. 

For viewers who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing*, subtitles alone will not provide the context needed to have a complete viewing experience. For example, if someone with hearing loss is watching a video with only subtitles and someone on screen starts running away, it could be because someone else is calling their name, it could be because there was the sound of an explosion nearby, or it could be that they hear the bell ringing and they’re late for school. With captions, a text alternative to the preceding sound is included so as to offer clarity for why the person is running. 

Additionally, captions include speaker tags or speaker IDs. When there is dialogue in a video, hearing viewers are able to deduce who is speaking, and when, by the differences in the actors’ voices. Captions, again assuming that the viewer cannot hear the audio, include this information as the speakers change. 

*A note on the phrase “d/Deaf and/or hard of hearing”

While often used interchangeably, there is a difference between the terms “Deaf,” “deaf,” and “hard of hearing.”

“Deaf” with an uppercase ‘D’ refers to a people who identify with Deaf culture and view it as a part of their identity. Often, people who are Deaf prefer communicating in sign language.

When spelled with a lowercase “d,” “deaf” refers to the audiological condition of not hearing. People who refer to themselves as deaf often don’t have as strong of a connection to the overall Deaf community and prefer communicating orally rather than signing. 

“Hard of hearing” refers to those anywhere along the spectrum of mild to moderate hearing loss. People who are hard of hearing may also embrace Deaf culture or they may not.

The term “hearing impaired” is not widely accepted by the Deaf community, as it implies that their deafness is an impairment, as opposed to an identity marker to be celebrated.

Closed Captions vs Open Captions

Captions themselves can be further broken down into two different types: closed captions (cc) or open captions (oc). Closed captions can be turned on and off depending on viewer preference, whereas open captions are always visible to everyone.

Closed captions are added to a video by uploading a separate text file and open captions have the text permanently “burned in” or “hard coded” to the video. 

Often with pre-recorded video, closed captions are used so people can individually decide whether or not to enable them. For live events, open captions are often preferred because it enables each audience member to have the same experience at the same time. 

When deciding which type of caption to use, it’s important to think about the viewing experience and the platform. On certain social media platforms, such as Instagram, there aren’t ways to upload a caption file to a video. Therefore, if you want captions to appear, they will have to be open captions. Facebook, on the other hand, gives the ability to add a caption file when posting videos. In those cases, either closed captions or open captions can be used. It’s up to you and the experience you want to create for your viewers! Whichever you choose, it makes a huge difference in ensuring your content is accessible for all audiences. 

To find out more about how to add subtitles, open & closed captions to any video, click here: Add Subtitles to Video