How Generation Z became obsessed with subtitles

Much has been written about the death of reading among Generation Z, but it is clear that these critics do not take into account the millions of words they consume each year while watching TV and movies. A survey by captioning charity Stagetext in 2021 found that in the 18-25 age group, four out of five use subtitles all or part of the time, although there are fewer hearing problems than in the older generations. By contrast, less than a quarter of those aged 56 to 75 said they watch with comment.

Explanations for this sudden increase in reading viewing among young people are many and varied. From American viewers who increasingly watch British shows with impenetrable regional accents, such as Peaky Blinders or Derry Girls, to the frequent complaining of contemporary drama actors—who aim for realism over perfect casting but land squarely on “incoherent grumbling”—the mumbling Too perfect for perfect ears to follow without help.

Another slightly frustrating reason, at least for filmmakers. One of the generals, looking succinctly from his phone and computer when I understood him on the matter, said, “The main reason they did it, was so that they could raise their eyes and read it forward, and then all quickly took the scene, and look back at their phones, or any second screen. They have. It’s kind of stupid, but everyone does it.”

With this code, subtitles and closed captions – technically, the former for people who can’t understand the language being spoken, and the latter for people who can’t hear audio – are treated by Gen Z as a kind of Huel visual TV. In other words, why waste time enjoying a full meal as the chef intended, when you can just change the main ingredients in a fraction of the time and go back to whatever else you’re doing? (“It’s called efficiency, grandfather—look for it.”)

One result of this shift is a boom in foreign language strings. Netflix’s most popular show to date, Squid Game, is a South Korean show, and many of its most successful creations – from Spanish crime drama Money Heist and Colombian series Narcos (which combines both Spanish and English), to French productions Call My Agent! and Lupine—enjoyed by audiences who can’t comprehend a word (resulting in what Bong Joon-Ho, the South Korean director of Parasite, once called the “one-inch-high translation barrier”), which has historically put off native-speaking audiences. English of foreign production).

But Netflix, which does nothing if not constantly watching the whims of its members’ waning whims, has also revolutionized its labels on English language programming with its so-called Timed Text Style Guide to its in-house production. According to Globalization Director, Cathy Rokney, conditions are encouraged “when appropriate”. “Describe sounds, music and even silence. She recently explained that it is important to heighten emotions.

The growth in demand means that major but long under-appreciated industry, language service providers (or LSPs), who provide translation, annotation and dubbing, are now struggling to cope. Conversely, diplomatic translation services find that their translators are drawn to television, which has led to a shortage of linguists where previously there was an oversupply.

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