It’s no secret that I’m a fan of subtitles; especially those that give access to people who would otherwise be unable to access content.

But what many people don’t realise is that subtitles are so much more than just an access or translation service in the traditional sense. Subtitles are amazingly valuable, and in this post, my aim is to convince you just how much value they add.

In my vision of the future, everyone who ever makes or views audiovisual content of any type is aware of the value of subtitles. Every single piece of audiovisual content is subtitled as a matter of course. Nobody questions the value of creating them and their production becomes as much an unquestioned part of any production as recording and editing the audio or the image.

Why are they so valuable?

Subtitles are metadata
Along with a few other subtitle fans, we’ve been on about the value of subtitles as metadata for a few years now. But in recent months it seems like the idea is finally beginning to get some traction, as words like “big data” invade everyday life and the value of having a timed transcript to help navigate around content becomes more obvious. Subtitles are essentially timed text and accurate timed text is extremely useful to power things like search, recommendation or targeted advertising. A recent study by Discovery Digital Networks found that adding subtitles to videos increased search traffic, page views, search rank and engagement, documenting a 13% increase in views.

Improving speech recognition
Subtitles are essentially transcripts, and by using them along with their associated audio track, we can also improve the tools we use to produce them. They’re meta-tools. We have been involved in several projects which use subtitles and audio to build and improve speech recognition software. This is infinitely more valuable than feeding masses of data from automatically generated transcripts into engines, a method which can lead to recognition mistakes being reinforced. Here, again, it’s the value of accurate transcripts that is important. The better quality subtitles are, the more useful and valuable. Logical, right?

Aiding communication
So, subtitles are worth so much more than the sum of their parts, for content owners and technology developers alike… but they also can add value in many other sectors. Live remote captioning for meetings helps people who are Deaf or hard of hearing to participate in phone conferences and meetings. But it’s not just people with sensory disabilities that can benefit. In multinational companies, where the working language is English, you will find thousands of people participating in meetings or giving presentations every day using their second language. Live transcription can be sent to individual devices, projected onto screens or embedded in webcasts. This not only helps comprehension during the event, but after, as reading intralingual subtitles actually improves people’s language skills. What’s more, after the meeting or event, the full transcript can be used to produce minutes, help communications departments with their copywriting, or can be used to navigate a video of the event uploaded to a website.

Are you convinced yet? Aren’t subtitles brilliant? But there’s more, much more. They are massively useful as language learning support, as any language teacher worth his or her salt will tell you. Watching subtitled movies (or even better, foreign films with intralingual subtitles) is a great way to learn a language. However much the dubbing industry might despair when this is pointed out, you really only have to compare levels of English in European countries which primarily use dubbing versus those that have only subtitling. Where do you think people speak better English? Spain or Denmark? Italy or Holland? You judge. They’re also widely recognised as a great tool to improve literacy. In India, same language subtitles on Bollywood movies have been used to improve literacy. They can even help content be understood in countries like China where everything not in Modern Standard Mandarin is subtitled in the lingua franca, to aid comprehension for speakers of other dialects. Subtitles can even be used to standardise and protect minority languages. Catalan public television, for example, was subtitling high volumes of content long before they were obliged to by legislation, as part of the drive to standardise usage and spelling, and stop Catalan being overly influenced or even “swallowed” by Spanish.

These are just a few of the reasons I’m a massive fan of subtitles. But what do you think? Do you think subtitles add value in any other way? Drop me a line or let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Diana Sanchez, General Manager, Red Bee Media Spain.