Audiences are increasingly using services such as video on demand and the web to watch television programmes.

Broadcasters need to make subtitles available across all these new platforms.

These platforms also create new design opportunities for subtitles along with the ability to customise them to an individual’s needs.

To explore these new opportunities for subtitles we have begun the process of reviewing the guidance for subtitles on television and evaluating the original user research.

We have found that existing guidelines have been shaped by a mixture of technical constraints, industry practice and user research, constrained by existing technical standards.

This paper provides an overview of the subtitle research at BBC R&D over the past two years.

Our research is revealing significant diversity in the needs and preferences of frequent subtitle users, and points to the need for personalisation in the way subtitles are displayed.

We are developing a new approach to the authoring and display of subtitles that can respond to the user requirements by adjusting the subtitle layout in the client device.


Subtitles as an access service (also known as closed captions) were first broadcast on television in the UK over 35 years ago, using the Teletext system.

Subtitles are now an integral part of the television service provided on all BBC programmes in the UK via digital television services and are used by around 10% of the viewing audience every day.

However, most of the research on subtitles was conducted using the Teletext system or other legacy formats with similar constraints.

This has meant that progress in subtitle research has been quite conservative in its approach and has failed to address the challenges being posed by the way television content is now being watched on computers, tablets and mobile phones.

These new devices offer a very different experience to that of watching analogue television 30 years ago.

Furthermore, recent research on same-language subtitles has been diverted by academics whose expertise is in translation and who focus on promoting the role of the subtitler, rather than the experience of the audience.

Our research has attempted to address issues with previous work and pay careful attention to our audience’s experience of subtitles.

We have begun to build a new model of the experience of watching television with subtitles and are finding some considerable variation in the wants and needs of different subtitle users, depending on their sensory and cognitive abilities, and the way in which they use the subtitles.

In order to best meet these diverse needs and the new media landscape we have proposed a new approach to subtitles that we are calling Responsive Subtitles.


Teletext subtitles first appeared on BBC Television in the UK in 1979 and live subtitles were first broadcast in 1984. In 2008 the BBC achieved 100% subtitling for all of its main channels and since 2012 BBC iPlayer has provided 100% subtitling on all capable platforms for its on-demand and downloadable content.

A large proportion of the UK television audience relies on subtitles. The BBC’s audience research team has run two audience surveys for us over the past two years.

Each used a representative sample of around 5,000 participants who were questioned on that day’s viewing.

The responses indicate that about 10% of the audience use subtitles on any one day and around 6% use them for most of their viewing.

This equates to an audience of around 4.5 million people in the UK of which over 2.5 million use them most or all of the time.

Importantly, not all subtitle users have hearing difficulties, some are watching with the sound turned off and others use them to support their comprehension of the programme, whilst around a quarter of people with hearing difficulties watch television without subtitles (1).

Research & Regulation

The original guidelines for subtitling in the UK were informed by research carried out in the late 1970s by a team based at Southampton University on behalf of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

This pioneering work was difficult because of the nature of available television equipment at the time and subtitled television was a novel experience for the participants (2, 3).

The guidelines were published in 1982 and contained extensive guidance on how scripts should be edited to create subtitle blocks (4).

The Centre for Deaf Studies in Bristol reviewed the research on television subtitling in a report for the BBC and Independent Television Commission (ITC) in 1992.

The report raised concerns about the existing research and the lack of follow up work in several areas including the issue of whether subtitles should be edited or presented verbatim (5).

In 1996 the ITC commissioned research on viewers’ preference for block subtitles or scrolling subtitles for news coverage.

The report recorded no strong preference for block or scrolling subtitles but argued for edited subtitles, despite a majority of respondents preferring verbatim subtitles.

It also highlighted problems with subtitles being delayed and obscuring other information (6).

The ITC published new guidelines in 1997 which were updated in 1999 to include the new digital television services and the move to DVB subtitles. However, apart from specifying the Tiresias font the approach replicated the existing Teletext delivery (7).