Understanding the Differences Between Roll-Up Captioning, Pop-on Captioning, and Subtitling

One of the number-one questions I get from prospective clients or even friends is the question: What is the difference between roll-up captioning, pop-on captioning, and subtitling?  Also, people often think that captioning is the same thing as subtitling, which it isn't. To take this question even further, I will explain in what cases each one is ideally used.*

Captioning VS. Subtitling

Captioning was created so deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers could read along to TV shows. A technology needed to be created that was accessible to the deaf viewer, but not obligatory for hearing viewers. So today, closed captioning is decoded by a decoder chip in the television and it must be activated to view.  Captions are white letters with a black background. The font looks similar to Courier New.

Subtitling, on the other hand, was originally created so viewers of programming in a language other than their own could read along in their own language. Unlike captions, subtitles cannot be turned on or off through a TV decoder chip. They are burned on the video. If you are watching subtitles on a DVD or Blu-ray Disc, they can be turned on or off through the menu. Subtitles can be different fonts or colors and usually do not have a black or transparent background.

Roll-up Captioning

What is it?

Roll-up captions scroll up the screen line by line usually two to three lines at a time. It is the most basic form of captioning, as it usually does not include extensive sound effect description nor speaker identification.

When is it used?

Roll-up captioning is mainly used for ALL live programming and for post-production broadcast programming that only has one speaker (not very common).

For an example of roll-up captioning, view the video on this page: roll-up video

Pop-On Captioning

What is it?

Pop-on captions pop on and off the screen one caption at a time.  They typically look like a square box and each caption usually consists of two to three lines.  Pop-on captions should include sound effect descriptions as well as movement for speaker identification.

When is it used?

Pop-on captions should be used for pre-recorded broadcast programming with multiple speakers.

For an example of pop-on captioning view the video on this page: pop-on video


What is it?

Subtitles pop on and off the screen just like pop-on captions but they typically do not have a black background and can be any font and color.

When is it used?

Subtitles should always be used for DVD and Blu-ray Discs as they can be turned on and off through the menu.  They should also be used for broadcasts in countries where the programming is of a language other than the country's primary language.

For an example of subtitles view the video on this page: subtitling video

*Please note that this article's aim is to be a general explanation for the person that has no prior knowledge of the topic.  It does not go into depth on the technical differences between captioning and subtitling.  I specifically talk about captions for broadcasting and not other purposes like online video, et cetera. When I speak about captioning, I am referring to Line 21 (analog) captioning, not captioning for HD.