What Is Open Captioning?

By Shea Laverty

Captions provide an on-screen transliteration of dialogue and sound effects, with open captions being always active on the screen.

Open captions appear on your television or computer screen during a program to display spoken dialogue as text. Captions are designed to make it easier for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing to enjoy a television or online streaming video program. Captions are also useful in noisy places, or places where multiple televisions are running different shows simultaneously.

Difference from Closed Captions

There are two types of captions: Open and closed. Closed captions are optional and activated by the viewer, while open captions are always on. This is the only effective difference between the two.

Differences from Subtitles

Subtitles are another captioning system that is similar to open and closed captions. Subtitles are typically employed to translate foreign language dialogue and on-screen text into the viewer's native language. Depending on the video, subtitles may be always on or optionally disabled. Another big difference is what they cover: Many closed and open captions also display text describing other sounds in the production, such as laughter, and in some cases, even the type of music playing. Subtitles are almost exclusively used for dialogue. Captions also note who is speaking for off-screen dialogue, whereas subtitles do not.

Tip

In some circles, such as online fan-based subtitling groups, the terms "softsub" and "hardsub" are used to describe closed and open captions, respectively. Other terms are also used, varying depending on the group's country of origin.

Advantages of Open Captions

One of the drawbacks to using closed captions is that the viewer must activate them himself: A task which may be difficult for some viewers, and which varies from one television or streaming service to the next. Open captions remove this hurdle and provide their captions at all times. This makes open captioning more universal, as separate captioning decoders aren't required.

Disadvantages of Open Captions

Open captions are encoded directly into the video stream of a video, making it impossible to disable them for viewers who don't want or require them. The quality of open captions is also directly tied to the quality of the video: If the video is blurry or otherwise low-quality, the captions are also blurry and may be difficult to read.

Use at Movie Theaters

Many movie theaters also feature movie presentations accompanied by open captions. These presentations are usually held in a dedicated auditorium or at specific times of the day, so check ahead with the box office before purchasing tickets for showtimes. Tell the ticket agent that you want tickets for a showing with captions when you purchase the tickets.

Use in Live Theater

Open captioning is also used in live theatrical productions. In this context, open captions fulfill the same purpose as their TV counterparts, displaying dialogue and sound effects as text. Open captions in theater are usually provided using a captioning unit, which is a screened device near the stage that is visible by all members of the audience. The captioning unit scrolls the dialogue across its screen in time with the performance. The availability of open captioning varies from one theater to another, so check ahead before purchasing tickets.