There’s a reason Bradley Johnston watches “literally everything” with subtitles on. It’s not an accessibility issue – the 25-year-old is a native English speaker and isn’t hard of hearing. He is “the kind of TV viewer that just doesn’t want to work for it”.
“Like, if there’s a subtle moment some people might miss that’s integral to the plot, let me know about it,” he says.
Take, for example, the recent season of HBO hit The White Lotus. “There is so much going on in that show … I know there’s something being shown to me that I need to pick up on, so just tell me what it is.” Or the horror movie Barbarian, which Johnston saw first at the cinema and then watched again at home with a closer eye. “I honestly reckon it was a better watch the second time around because of the subtitles,” he says.
Johnston isn’t the only one living in what he describes as a “subtitles household”. Last year, Netflix revealed that 40% of its global users have subtitles on all the time, while 80% switch them on at least once a month – stats that far exceed the number of viewers who need captioning because of hearing impairment.
There are, of course, a myriad of reasons why someone might turn on the subtitles: a sleeping baby in the other room they don’t want to wake, a noisy flight path above, or an unintelligibly thick accent from an international actor (something that is becoming more common as streaming brings television from around the globe into our homes). The terminally online among us may switch them on to screenshot their way to viral meme success, so they can be ready to catch pithy one-liners as they drop.
When it comes to intricately plotted prestige television, subtitles can help you follow what’s happening if you’re prone to scrolling through Instagram at the same time as tuning in. Or sometimes the fun can be found in laughing at how truly terrible some subtitling is.
But if you’re switching subtitles on because you simply can’t make out what the actors are saying, it’s (probably) not your ears that are to blame. Hard-to-hear dialogue is a known issue in the industry, says the sound mixer Guntis Sics, who has worked on movies including Moulin Rouge! and Thor: Ragnarok.
There are a lot of contributing factors but, paradoxically, it all comes back to advances in technology.
“As technology evolved, especially when it took the leap to digital, a tsunami of sound appeared all of a sudden,” Sics says.
The problem starts on the movie set. In decades past, actors had to project loudly towards a fixed microphone. The advent of portable mics has allowed a shift towards a more intimate and naturalistic style of performance, where actors can speak more softly – or, some might say, mumble.
It’s an approach to acting Sics says has been around for a long time now, but something he’s certainly noticed more in younger performers.
“Tony Hopkins on Thor spoke like a normal human being, whereas on a lot of other films, there’s a new style with young actors – it’s like they just talk to themselves. That might work in a cinema, but not necessarily when it gets into people’s lounge rooms,” he says
Other technological advances have also complicated things. As audio tech became more sophisticated, film-makers started including more sounds: where we once would have heard a door slam as someone angrily exited an apartment, today we also get the handle turning, a ticking clock and a heavy character breathing. And when sound is mixed with the best possible audio experience in mind – say, at a cinema – much of that detail can be lost when it’s folded down to laptop speakers, or even your television. It’s often the dialogue that suffers most.
Because back in the day – “when TVs were just TVs,” as Sics says – the small, tinny speakers they came with pushed out the high frequencies where the voice sits clearly and loudly. But as technology progressed, Sics says, electronics companies began to expect consumers to buy their own sound system separately. Relying on the TV’s small built-in speakers could leave you with a subpar experience.
But even if you do invest in an expensive speaker set-up, failing to tune it perfectly to your living room means you may end up hearing the big explosions better, but not voices.
“Think back to the old black and white movies and how clear the dialogue is there – it’s partly to do with the speaker technology,” Sics says. “[Today] you might get lucky, plug your speakers in and it sounds perfect. But most people plug it in, and all of various frequencies bounce off the walls and confuse what you’re listening to. If you set it up in a room with no carpet and just floorboards, it’s going to sound like crap. whereas the old tinny speaker managed to cut through that.”
This may explain why home audiences are missing words or lines that include crucial plot details, and are leaving it to the subtitles to pick them up. In last year’s White Lotus season, for instance, subtitles suggested the return of a character who didn’t actually show up on camera. In Euphoria, the closed captioning noted inaudible “scratching noises” from inside a cupboard – hinting at the nefarious intentions of one character and spawning many fan theories.
So what is it like for an audio professional to know that your hard work is being missed as people turn down the volume and reach for the subtitles?
“It feels awful. And I think it’s time we really dealt with it,” Sics says. But he believes some acoustic problems can be addressed with a couple of quick fixes at home.
First, look for the speaker setting on your TV optimized for speech; wind up the treble if that’s an option, as that will allow you to hear voices more clearly. Try to reduce background noise by switching off noisy appliances like the dishwasher before you sit down to watch television. And throw a rug down if you’ve got a lot of hard surfaces in your living room, to prevent reverberation.
But for viewers like Johnston, it may not be the audio quality that is the true sticking point.
“I don’t know whether it’s a hearing issue or an attention span issue,” he says. “Because I feel like my attention span requires me to actually read the screen to make sure I can get through a long [TV show or movie].” That’s a problem a rug won’t solve.