3 OCT 2023

Young viewers and streaming: subtitles use is growing quickly

According to Morning Consult data, Gen Z adults and millennials are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to use and be satisfied with subtitled content.

3 OCT 2023

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The discourse around subtitle use has reached a zenith, with research showing that subtitles are disproportionately used by young consumers amid an increasing number of non-English language originals taking off. According to recent Morning Consult data, these discussions are pertinent to video streaming platforms, pointing to ways they may be able to win over more Gen Zers and millennials.

However, focusing exclusively on subtitle use among younger consumers may lead to companies incorrectly dismissing it as a fleeting trend driven by the TikTok generation. In fact, new Morning Consult data suggests streamers are already missing out on catering to the subtitle needs of older consumers. Although hearing tends to deteriorate with age, Gen Z adults and millennials are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to use and be satisfied with subtitles. It’s possible that older consumers don’t find turning subtitles on to be straightforward, so they resort to simply raising the volume when served muddled dialogue. This should encourage platforms to invest in enhancing their subtitle quality and customization features — improvements that can be meaningful differentiators.

It’s true that young people like subtitles: The shares of Gen Z adults (61%) and millennials (58%) saying they generally use them when watching TV shows or movies are much higher than the equivalent shares of Gen Xers (30%) and baby boomers (27%). But something not often mentioned is that headphone and speaker usage is also higher among younger generations.  In other words, Gen Zers and millennials don’t have a singular focus on using visual aids (subtitles and closed captions) to enhance their entertainment experiences. Instead, notable shares use other tools, too. This is likely due to younger viewers’ higher usage of media overall compared with older generations: A consumer using many video streamers will need more tools to help enhance their understanding of dialogue than someone who uses fewer. Natural sound level and level and crispness are far from standardized across platforms.

Content trends play a role as well, given younger generations’ penchant for non-English content. While 38% of Gen Z adults and 45% of millennials said they have a favorable opinion of foreign-language films and TV shows, those figures were much lower for Gen Xers (25%) and baby boomers (18%). Meanwhile, lower subtitle use among older consumers is likely due to accessibility issues. Roku’s Vice President of Viewer Product Preston Smalley previously attributed lower use of subtitles among seniors to “technical hurdles.” The process of enabling subtitles is slightly different on every platform, and older streaming devices may even require unintuitively holding down a button on an Apple TV remote, which is likely deterring older consumers. The perceived quality of subtitles is probably at play, too. Older consumers are less likely to be satisfied with video streaming platforms’ subtitles than younger ones, unsurprising given the general lack of customization options across platforms. Our data suggests that the inability to control things like the size and speed of on-screen text is especially frustrating to older consumers.

These gripes could deter Gen Xers and baby boomers from using subtitles when viewing new content, so arguments that older audiences are inherently disinterested in subtitles seem misguided. Bolstering subtitles could increase viewer engagement: By far, the most popular reason subtitle users prefer on-screen text is to stay focused on what’s playing rather than to address sound issues or a language barrier. The same is true for subtitle users of all ages.

This makes sense, given that the temptation to “second screen” rises as social platforms build out their short-form video and shopping offerings. But streamers clearly could do more to improve the quality of their subtitles: 32% of adults who use subtitles said they “sometimes” or “often” stop watching a video streaming service because they’re unsatisfied with the subtitles or closed captioning. This figure is similar among all adults (27%), signaling the broader positive impact that improved subtitles could have on content engagement.

It comes down to utility, rather than style, to make a difference. The shares of all adults who said it’s “very important” to be able to control the position, speed, and size of subtitles are all much higher than for font style and color. Subtitle users similarly value being able to customize text position, speed, and size over style and color. It’s fortunate that the customization preferences of these two groups broadly align: Considering the attitudes of both will help video streamers satisfy Gen Zers and millennials and potentially also get some older consumers to start using subtitles.

Enabling users to customize where subtitles appear is particularly worth tackling, given how useful this feature would be and how absent it is across streaming. While some auteurs might strongly object to subtitles that detract from their work’s deliberate cinematography, streamers can always selectively restrict this ability on certain titles to satisfy key relationships. Platforms like Netflix could even offer to create a custom subtitle set for a film created by a renowned director like Alfonso Cuarón or Steven Spielberg. While people will always base their subscription decisions on content library and price over subtitle quality, subtitles are still worth paying more attention to as global content increasingly fills up streamers’ catalogs. Plus, working with certain directors on custom subtitles could be a new way to show goodwill, which will become more necessary following the strikes that have no doubt dented the overall relationship between studios and talent.

There aren’t many novel ways for streamers to stand out from the competition, as companies have already dabbled in offbeat initiatives like mobile games, branded products, and podcasts. As such, consumers will increasingly judge streamers by how well they nail the basics. It will be up to platforms to ensure that investment in trendy, nonessential side projects doesn’t detract from their ability to deliver a satisfying viewer experience.