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Are TV subtitles up to scratch in the UK?

Kim Staples
Written by  Kim Staples
4 min read
Updated: 02 Mar 2024

Stats show that the UK is watching telly with subtitles more than ever before – but are the country’s TV services actually set up for it? The answer, sadly, is no.

A 2023 YouGov poll  showed that more than a quarter of Brits watch TV and movies with subtitles on – and the number is increasing. A whopping 61% of 18-24-year-olds prefer to read while they watch, compared to just 13% of the 50-64-year-old bracket.  

There are a few reasons why that might be. For one, sound design on TV and movies is generally created for surround sound, meaning that when you listen to it in stereo (on your TV, laptop, or phone, for instance), that design is compromised. The louds are louder, and the quiets are quieter – meaning it can be tough to hear what on earth the characters are saying.  

But the most important reason is basic accessibility. Whether you’re using them due to hearing impairment, auditory processing issues, or just needing the volume on low, subtitles and closed captions let you watch a show that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.  

Accessibility is something Ofcom takes very seriously, and because of that it has an official code on television access services. It sets out targets for how much UK television should have certain accessibility features – subtitling, audio description, and signing – along with best practice guidelines.  

For subtitling, those targets are fairly steep. They apply to TV channels watched by just 0.05% of the population and above – requiring 10% of their content to be subtitled within the first two years the channel exists, and rising each year. BBC channels are expected to be 100% subtitled, and ITV and Channel 4 90%.  

In fact, the targets are some of the most stringent in Europe – subtitling requirements don’t kick in in Iceland unless a channel reaches almost a quarter of the population, for instance. And even better news for Brits is that almost all live channels in the country are providing subtitles beyond their targets.  

However, it still leaves a lot of gaps. Because the responsibility of providing subtitles rests with the individual TV channels, many of them have quite low quotas. And the requirement only applies to the channels – TVs, set top boxes, and so on aren’t required to have compatible technology to deliver them. Streaming services are left out too.   

It’s hardly surprising that those gaps have been noticed – by some of the people who need subtitles the most, no less. A 2023 report by the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People) found that 97% of respondents had tried to watch a TV programme in the last year and found there were no subtitles. For 80% of them, that meant they couldn’t watch the show full stop.  

“Our communities aren’t just missing out on entertainment,” the organisation rightly pointed out in their Subtitle It! campaign. “People who use subtitles or signing are excluded from Government briefings, important news updates, and conversations with friends and family, leaving them feeling frustrated, disappointed and excluded. This isn’t good enough.” 

And looking at the statistics in Ofcom’s most recent Access Services report, it seems they’re right – if you rely on subtitles or closed captions, you are indeed missing out on a lot of TV.  

Why can’t I get subtitles? 

To answer that, let’s look at how subtitles work in the UK. 

They’re provided by the first place by the channel or on-demand service itself. They’re then delivered to the technology you’re using to access the channel/service – for instance, the Freeview aerial on your TV, or your Sky box, streaming stick, app, and so on. Then your telly itself shows them on the screen.  

So, if you can’t get subtitles for a show, it could be because: 

  • The channel or service hasn’t provided them  

  • They aren’t compatible with the tech you’re using (e.g. the Sky box) 

  • They aren’t compatible with your TV 

  • There’s a different technical fault with your set 

streaming services

Does Freeview have subtitles? 

Generally, yes, live channels on Freeview have subtitles – but it depends on the channel.  

100% of BBC content is subtitled, and more than 90% of ITV and Channel 4 shows are too.  

For smaller, more niche channels, fewer shows will have subtitles.  

One major boon of Freeview, however, is its Accessible TV Guide, which has been developed in partnership with disability organisations. You can filter the guide to only show programmes with subtitles, audio description, or sign language.  

To set it up, you’ll need an internet-connected Freeview Play box, which is included in a number of TV sets as standard.  

Which TV on demand apps have subtitles?  

  • BBC iPlayer – 100% of on-demand content has subtitles 

  • ITV Hub – 85-90%, except via YouView boxes, where 0% is subtitled 

  • All4 – 96% when accessed directly, but there are no stats available for getting subtitles via other platforms (such as if you watch it via a Virgin TV box) 

  • My5 – around 66%, depending on how you access it 

  • STV Player – 66% 

Again, bear in mind that this is the amount of content that the on-demand service itself has provided subtitles for. Whether they can be switched on depends on how you’re watching your show.  

Does Sky TV have subtitles? 

Sky is committed to offering subtitles or closed captions on 100% of its own channels (e.g. Sky Max, Sky Atlantic). However, in practice, that doesn’t mean guaranteed subtitles for Sky TV customers.  

For all those channels that don’t have ‘Sky’ in the name, your Sky TV box can only provide subtitles if the channel itself has provided them. For instance, the History channel has no subtitles – so you can’t watch it with subtitles through Sky.  

The same goes for other apps and catch-up services that you can access with a Sky box or TV, as these subtitles are also provided by the catch-up service itself.  

Sky Go and Sky Glass unfortunately have very little in the way of subtitles. A number of channels you can watch through Sky Go have zero subtitles.  

Sky Sports has around 80% of its content subtitled – a little lower than other Sky channels, likely because most of the content is live.  

Does NOW TV have subtitles? 

NOW TV offers closed captions rather than subtitles. According to Ofcom they’re offered on about 85% of its live and on-demand services, including Cinema and Entertainment Memberships.  

However, there are some snags.  

There are no closed captions whatsoever on the Sports or Hayu Memberships on-demand. (Although live channels on Sports are mostly subtitled.)  

And even when subtitles are provided by NOW, whether or not you can get them depends on the device you’re using. Thankfully, a huge list of devices are supported – but EE TV doesn’t support any closed captions for the NOW app, and YouView boxes only support them for live channels.  

Annoyingly, it’s also more than likely that you’ll also need to switch the subtitles (or closed captions) back on every time you open the app. Only a few devices support having them switched on as default.  

Does Virgin Media TV have subtitles? 

It depends on the channel with Virgin Media TV. As above, you’ll have more luck with popular terrestrial channels – but many premium channels with a smaller audience share don’t have subtitles for all their shows. For example, Comedy Central only has 79% of its content subtitled on Virgin TV, kids channel Nickelodeon has 39%, and some channels, such as History, have none at all.  

Does TalkTalk TV have subtitles? 

Stats aren’t available for TalkTalk TV’s subtitles, because TalkTalk has switched to a new set top box (an Android TV gadget) since the last Ofcom report came out.  

Because it’s app-based, whether you can get subtitles or not depends on which service you’re using.  

Anecdotally, it seems users have no major complaints about subtitles on Android TV so far.  

Does EE TV (YouView) have subtitles? 

Subtitles on EE TV – and other TV systems that use a YouView box – are a bit dodgy.  

Live channels are generally okay, since they’re being pulled in from Freeview, but there are some major gaps. For instance, there are no subtitles at all on NOW TV on-demand content, or on ITV Hub.  

Do streaming services have subtitles? 


Netflix is famously opposed to disclosing its stats, and that includes stats around how much of its content has subtitles. Anecdotally, users generally report that they can use subtitles on the platform and a recent update gives you more control over how the subtitles or closed captions look. 

Amazon Prime Video 

According to Ofcom stats, Amazon Prime Video has between 36% and 72% of its shows subtitled, depending on how you access it.  


Disney+ is a dream for subtitles – more than 99% of its content has subtitles on every platform you can access it on.  


The Discovery+ app is very poor for subtitles, with only 24% of its content offering them.  


Britbox is excellent here, offering subtitles on 98%-100% of its content, depending which platform you access it from.