Most American adults under 30 prefer watching TV with subtitles — even when they know the language

Jamie BallardData Journalist
August 11, 2023, 1:48 PM GMT+0

When Americans settle in to watch the latest episode of their favorite TV show, they must decide: to subtitle or not to subtitle? YouGov’s latest survey finds that young adults are especially likely to favor subtitles, while older generations more often leave them off. The survey also explored why people use or don’t use subtitles when they’re watching TV.

The survey finds that just over half (53%) of Americans prefer to have the subtitles off when they watch TV in a language they know, while 38% prefer to have the subtitles on.

Adults under 30 years old are far more likely than older generations to prefer watching TV with subtitles turned on: 63% do. That share is much lower among older age groups: Among 30-to 44-year-olds, 37% are pro-subtitle; just 29% of 45- to 64-year-olds and 30% of people 65 and older agree. (The age gap for subtitle usage is even bigger among British TV watchers, according to a recent YouGov survey.)

Hispanic Americans (54%) are more likely than Black Americans (40%) or white Americans (33%) to say they prefer having the subtitles on when watching TV in a language they know.

The genre of TV a person enjoys might play a role. Among people who enjoy foreign TV shows, 21% say they always have subtitles on for TV programs that are in a language they know and 31% say they use them most of the time. Among fantasy viewers, 15% always use subtitles and 27% use them most of the time. About one-third of science fiction viewers use subtitles always (11%) or most of the time (21%).

The majority of Americans have subtitles on at least occasionally when watching programs in a language they know. While 13% always watch TV with subtitles on, 17% say they do this most of the time, 15% do so sometimes, and 21% do so rarely. About one-third (34%) say they never watch TV with the subtitles on.

Among adults under 30, 23% say they always have subtitles on and 28% say they have them on most of the time. Among people 30 and over, fewer say they always (11%) or mostly (14%) have subtitles on when they watch TV.

Among people who ever use subtitles when watching TV, 40% say they do so because it enhances their comprehension. The same percentage (40%) do so because it helps them to understand accents, while 33% say they do so because they’re in a noisy environment. Slightly fewer use subtitles because they have hearing difficulties (30%), want to avoid disturbing others (22%), or appreciate the dialogue (20%).

Among people who at least sometimes don't use subtitles when watching TV in a language they know, many say it’s because they’re distracting (50%), unnecessary (44%), or clutter the screen (38%). Fewer say they opt to go without them because they have a preference for listening (29%) or because the subtitles don’t match the pace of the dialogue (24%).

When it comes to TV in a language they don’t speak, 41% of Americans prefer to read subtitles. Fewer than half as many (17%) prefer listening to dubbed audio, where the original dialogue is replaced with a new recording in a language they know. Meanwhile, 38% say they only watch TV in languages they know — including just 21% of adults under 30, and 52% of Americans 65 and older.

In keeping with findings from this survey about TV in languages they do know, adults under 30 are more likely than older adults to say they prefer reading subtitles when watching TV in languages they don't know (58%).

— Taylor Orth, Linley Sanders, and Carl Bialik contributed to this article


See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: The YouGov poll was conducted online on June 29 - July 5, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. For both polls, the sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample also was weighted by baseline party identification, which is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (nyul)

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