Watching British movies and TV shows with the subtitles on? It’s not just you

Watching British movies and TV shows with the subtitles on? It’s not just you
  • PublishedJune 11, 2024

One of the benefits of streaming has been an increased flow of series and movies from around the globe, as services try to keep their shelves filled with fresh alternatives. Subscribers in the US, moreover, seem much less resistant than in years past when it comes to watching shows either entirely or heavily in languages other than English, as evidenced by the popularity of titles like “Squid Game,” “Lupin” and most recently “Shogun.”

Yet even shows produced in English in other countries, like the UK and Australia, can become a little thick for an American ear trying to sort out the idiomatic quirks and other differences. If you paused a few times to catch lines in Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer,” “Peaky Blinders” or “Bodkin,” or Paramount+’s “Sexy Beast,” rest assured, you are not alone.

Perhaps that’s one reason why data indicate more people – especially young adults, who are more prone to second-screen viewing and multitasking – are watching shows in their primary language with the subtitles on.

According to a 2023 survey by YouGov, nearly 40% of US respondents preferred having the subtitles on when watching TV in a language they speak, with those under 30 employing that practice by a better than two-to-one margin compared to those age 45 to 64.

The survey found that those using subtitles cite two primary factors in equal measure: Subtitles enhance their comprehension, and they help them understand accents.

Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in "Bridgerton."

Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in “Bridgerton.” Liam Daniel/Netflix

Netflix, as the most widely distributed streaming service, has cast its net farther and wider in terms of offering programs produced around the world, and it has taken note of changes in the way people consume its content.

The service has increased the number of films and series that support audio descriptions (AD) and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH).

Kathy Rokni, Netflix’s senior director of globalization, said the service employs an in-house team of “subtitling experts and language managers,” designed to enhance the viewing experience while remaining faithful to the filmmakers’ intentions.

“We believe great stories transcend borders, cultures, abilities, and languages,” Rokni said via email, noting that 40% of viewing hours on Netflix now happen with subtitles, including SDH, over half of which involves members employing subtitles in their primary language.

Certainly, it’s a long way back to 1979, when the Australian movie “Mad Max” was dubbed into American English because the distributor feared Americans wouldn’t be able to understand the Aussie accents.

“Mad Max,” starring Mel Gibson, was dubbed into American English for its original release in the US. Kennedy Miller Productions

British series obviously have a long history in the US – look no further than “Doctor Who” and the period dramas presented by “Masterpiece Theater” – but they traditionally tended to operate within a relatively narrow swatch of audience and genres.

By contrast, it’s notable today that a wider variety of imports, either in English or other languages, are organically finding success with little advance fanfare and promotion, as “Baby Reindeer” and before that “Squid Game” did. The trend suggests viewers are actively sampling internationally produced material as they seek (and often stumble upon) options via streaming platforms.

For streaming services, there’s a clear benefit to that, since series already produced elsewhere generally cost less to acquire than homegrown product, particularly with the production pipeline having slowed due to last year’s twin and prolonged actors and writers strikes.

So if the best show you’ve seen lately also happens to be one where you find yourself reading along while watching, either to assist your understanding or simply by choice? It’s not just you.


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