Streaming services have become part of our daily lives ever since Netflix burst onto our screens in 2007. Now, whenever we need entertainment, we’re used to having thousands of films and TV shows at our fingertips. Today, more streaming services are competing for our attention than ever before, with the likes of Apple TV+ and Disney+ spending millions on lavish launches designed to get us tuning in.

But we only have so much free time for these services to compete for. The past decade has already seen the rise and fall of streaming services like DisneyLife and Playstation Vue. Their failure to create a competitive product, facing issues with pricing, marketing and availability of content, meant they simply couldn’t break into the market.

The question on everyone’s lips is how we can find out which streaming service will stand the test of time and win our watch hours?

In this blog, we’ll discuss the role subtitles will play in the so called ‘streaming wars.’

Streaming services’ teething pains

While these streaming services spend millions on acquiring and promoting content, they’re consistently underestimating the demand for subtitles on their platform. Subtitling problems have often been the sign of teething pains. Let’s start off with the example of Disney+.

Although Disney+ won’t be hitting the UK until March 2020, Disney’s new streaming service has already launched in the US to much acclaim, mainly for its range of content and product design.

But even amongst a flurry of 4- and 5-star reviews for the platform and its original content, there has been strong criticism of the quality of subtitles on Disney+. The most blatant example comes from Disney’s new Star Wars spin-off series The Mandalorian.

Subtitling: A priority?

It’s one of the most expensive shows ever made at a budget of £15 million per episode, with a savvy marketing strategy that kept the show’s secrets and spoilers well under wraps. But despite the initial hype, there was a flurry of frustration about the quality of the subtitles on the show. It’s concerning to see that, even in one of the biggest original shows on any streaming service this year, subtitles have not been regarded as a priority.   

On the other hand, competitor service Apple TV+ has garnered praise for its subtitles – even while its general offering has been deemed underwhelming.

Apple TV+ comes with customisable subtitles, which means that viewers can avoid some of the common complaints about subtitles on streaming services – such as clunky blocks of text obscuring the action.

In another move towards accessibility, Apple TV+ also allows the user to choose audio description for certain shows in its catalogue – although this has not yet been rolled out across all shows. This is also something Disney+ seems to have caught up on recently.

Accessibility in streaming services

Accessibility is one of the major reasons why streaming services need to ensure that they offer consistently high-quality subtitles for all their shows.

It will be a major deciding factor in which services can last long-term. Every service wants to attract numbers close to the heft of Netflix’s 158 million paying subscribers worldwide, but so far it seems that they have been ignoring the possibility of marketing towards their deaf and hard of hearing customers.

This is especially pertinent when you realise that there is the possibility of attracting some customers who have left the bigger streaming services due to unreliable accessibility. While Netflix has been praised for its general level of accessibility, with subtitles available for almost all content on the platform, the quality has been known to vary from show to show.

Accessibility in streaming services: The criticism

Seminal shows like Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race have faced criticism for inaccurate and even offensive subtitles. What’s more, Netflix has even launched some of its headline shows without accessible features. Indeed, Netflix debuted the latest season of their hit show Black Mirror without any audio description.

These inaccuracies are harmful both to its brand and to its customers. Netflix prides itself on offering broader representation that mainstream channels often fail to provide. They have created prominent deaf characters in original titles such as ‘Tales of the City’, ‘The Dragon Prince’ and ‘Hush’. Deaf viewers may feel it is hypocritical of Netflix to take pride in its representation of the deaf and hard of hearing community in its shows while not consistently providing quality subtitles for them.

Reaching international markets

It seems that every streaming service has a ‘breakthrough market’ that they’re trying to gain a stronger foothold in. Netflix is struggling to compete in the Indian market by offering cheaper subscriptions and tailor-made content for their customers.

For long-term American exclusive Hulu, television fans are still eagerly awaiting the day the streaming service premieres in the UK.

As well as making mistakes in their English language subtitles, Netflix has also been under fire for badly thought-out subtitle translations. When subtitling their awards contender, the Mexican film ‘Roma’, last year, Netflix was criticised for ill-advised Castilian subtitling. Indeed, it was perceived as patronising and offensive to have assumed that viewers in Spain would need their Mexican Spanish subtitles to be localised to Iberian Spanish.

Reaching international markets: What went well

However, Netflix has also got some key things right. It’s been widely praised for its use of the Welsh language in the latest season of binge-watching-worthy hit ‘The Crown’, with long time campaigner Dafydd Iwan saying the program is ‘incredibly useful’ for promotion of the language. It seems that while Netflix struggles with basic subtitles for some shows, it does well when a language is woven into the fabric of their original content.

Whichever streaming service comes out on top with its subtitles, one thing is for certain – an accurate and well-researched approach to subtitling will be key to the success or failure of streaming services in international markets.

The binge-watching benefits of subtitles

There are, of course, many reasons other than accessibility that subtitles should be considered essential for streaming services. One of the main reasons is that subtitles can play a part in making ‘binge watching’ – all the episodes of a show in a matter of hours – easier for their customers.

Research has shown that adding subtitles to a programme improves comprehension, which is incredibly useful when shows like ‘Stranger Things’ or ‘Making a Murderer’ rely on intricate plot twists and exposition.

Millennials and teenagers like using subtitles as it allows them to multitask while watching the show. It’s easier to concentrate when there’s loud music, bad sound editing or strong accents in a programme.

Boosting your Business  

If you want to make your video content accessible and increase your reach to an international audience, why not look into using closed or open caption subtitling from VoiceBox? Get in touch with us today for a quote.

Article written by Lois Arcari, VoiceBox contributor.
Sim Johnston