Why we're using subtitles more often while watching and streaming shows and movies

NOW: Why we’re using subtitles more often while watching and streaming shows and movies

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Have you noticed yourself using the 'subtitle' feature more often while watching or streaming shows and movies? But if you were to flip to a classic show on MeTV, it seems way easier to hear.

You're not alone. We asked this question on Facebook and most of you said you need those subtitles to understand. In a Preply survey last year, half of Americans said they too watch with subtitles on and almost three quarters said it's because whatever they're watching sounds muddled.

Why is that? What's changed? Randy Bobo and Peter Batchelder are audio engineers at Independent Studios in Milwaukee. They say it's got a lot to do with technology. Filmmakers' technology but also our technology.

"If you go back to old TV, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith and stuff." said Bobo. "That was shot on film. It was probably put to an optical track. And the optical track, like an LP, had a limited dynamic range." 

Randy Bobo, Independent Studios

"It was all in the middle where your voice is." he explained.  "All those shows are really, seriously focused on voice. Modern taste and mixing techniques, we can do a lot more than that. We can do high ends, we can do really deep bass and that causes, maybe, you to lose some of that dialogue."

The new ways make for some grand sound in theaters. However, when you're watching at home a nice flatscreen LED TV, the speakers aren't even pointed at us.

"Audio is the bastard child of the industry and it sort of is. And maybe in television manufacturing it is too. Screen is more important than the audio." said Bobo. 

Another reason has to do with artistic expression and the 'dynamic range.'

"Dynamic range is the difference between the softest part of the sound, and the loudest part of the sound." Bobo said. "The dialogue may seem soft because the explosion in the action scene has to be so loud."

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Why doesn't Hollywood just make the voices louder?

"That's because everything is finite." said Batchelder. "Right? There is a limit. You can't just keep turning things up and up and up forever."

Turn up their voices and keep the music and the sound effects? Everything starts to sound bad.

"It's called distortion. The medium can only support so much sound. There's only so much water you can put in a container otherwise it's going to start spilling over." Batchelder said.

So, they can't turn it up. We don't want to turn it up any louder to wake the neighbors (or the kids).

What do we do?

Get a better sound system or get your reading glasses and keep the subtitles.

Vox Media has an excellent explainer that goes even deeper into this issue, including the directors that purposefully make it more difficult to hear. Check it out here.

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