Great drama – but can you hear what they’re saying?

Report by Louise Willcox, IBS Executive member

My Mother sent me a cutting from The Independent newspaper dated 1st June 2009, headline: “Great drama – but can you hear a single word they are saying?” It reported that Jay Hunt, Controller BBC 1 had agreed to co-operate with a major independent study. Being a nosey parker, I contacted Jay Hunt’s office to find out more. Jay had appointed Tanya Motie (BBC Children’s TV) to liaise with the TV Audibility Group (TVAG) – the group seeking funding to carry out the study mentioned in The Independent. Principle amongst the TVAG’s concerns is dialogue being obscured by back ground music.

After reading their comments in The Indie, I desperately wanted to tell them that unintelligible dialogue was not just caused by a duff mix! The BBC has offered the TVAG free use of their “Pulse” on-line audience research facility – some 20,000 people. In addition, the TVAG want to make sure that older viewer’s comments can be surveyed and they are currently seeking approximately £40k of funding to do an additional paper survey of the over 65s. Reason: they are the most likely age-group to have difficulty hearing dialogue, and only 25% of over 65s are on-line.The Pulse survey, alone, would not be representative of the population as a whole. GfK NOP have already been chosen by the TVAG to do the paper survey.

Who’s who?

  • Peter Menneer: was BBC Head of Broadcasting Research from 1979 to 1992 and has been an independent consultant since then. The Voice of the Viewer and Listener are backing this initiative and Peter is a member.
  • Richard Bates: retired as BBC Financial Controller, Regional Broadcasting in 1995, and has, until recently, been the Chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf’s Media Access Group. He is slightly hard of hearing.
  • David Walker: was Head of Engineering Resources for the BBC until 1993, then became co-director of Ethos Acoustics Ltd – a company specialising in the development of high quality loudspeakers and acoustic treatment for noise reduction.

IBS involvement

Tanya Motie forwarded my contact details to the TVAG, with a potted CV and mentioning my IBS connection. They immediately got in touch. Shortly afterwards, I was elected onto the IBS Executive Committee and was given the go-ahead to pursue the relationship on its behalf. I have been liaising with them since November last year, and EC member, Gary Clarke, has also hosted a visit by David Walker to TV Centre, where they discussed balance corruption problems caused by different digital broadcast platforms.

TVAG Prospectus

The TVAG wrote a first-draft Prospectus to attract sponsorship money for the over-65s’ survey. It focussed on speech being rendered unintelligible by loud background music. They forwarded this to me for comments. My feedback was made in a long telephone conversation with Peter Menneer. I said I felt that dialogue being drowned by music was only one of many possible contributory factors. We covered the following:

  • Lower budgets:
    • Bad acquisition of sound/dialogue in the first place; eg speech off-mic; no effort made to eliminate background noise etc. Possible causes:
      • Multi-skilling: (eg self shooting director doing everything, or taking researcher as the sound recordist.)
      • “Free” work experience sound recordists.
      • Shooting time too short.
  • No money for a dub.
  • “It will be all right at the dub” (if there’s going to be one!) attitude on location. The unrealistic expectation that an experienced dubbing mixer can always make silk purses of sow’s ears.
  • In the ever-increasing absence of a dub: inexperienced picture editors not understanding the multiplicity of sound formats, and how to track-lay/mix sound for broadcast.
  • Lack of training:
    • Dubbing mixers.
    • Sound recordists.
    • No BBC “Academy” training of any TV sound assistants for at least the last seven years. (Radio Studio Managers are still trained).
    • Bad diction, eg:
      • Strong regional accents, combined with bad diction.
      • Low level performances from thespians who think ‘small screen’ means ‘small voice’.
      • Speech to background ambient noise levels too close for a dubbing mixer to do anything about.
      • Un-co-operative directors not willing to back up a recordist’s request for a louder performance.

I am sure you can all think of many more!

Feedback taken on board

The revised Prospectus includes some of the points I made and the Appendix has included the original Independent article plus correspondence from the public. This includes a well informed letter from an ex-Granada TV Sound Recordist who points out that, these days, original programme material is usually acquired by one person; a self shooting director with no training in professional audio. There are many example survey questions in the up-dated Prospectus, but David Walker has overseen a section of more analytical, objective enquiries about sound levels, the viewer’s monitoring system, the perceived quality of sound and the contributor’s standard of hearing. Whether a programme was viewed analogue or digitally will also be logged, in case of any data corruption problems.

What next?

The TVAG are sending out the new Prospectus to potential sponsors. Once funding has been acquired, a specific week will be chosen for the paper and Pulse survey. It will cover programmes on the five main terrestrial channels only – all these broadcasters are aware and are co-operating. The BBC has undertaken to ensure that the week’s programmes’ production stages will be separately stored, so that they can go back in steps to find the source of a problem – all the way back to source material. The aspiration of the TVAG, thereafter, (assuming a significant number of those surveyed have had difficulty understanding dialogue) is for a set of ‘guidelines’ to be issued to broadcasters, to ensure clarity of dialogue in future. This is where I hope the IBS can exercise its influence.

What can we achieve?

I hope for similar success to that which we achieved in sorting out level discrepancies between programmes, trails and ads. We can offer our professional expertise, stressing the importance of good sound acquisition in the first place! Perhaps this is our opportunity to enshrine best practice into broadcaster guidelines – enforceable guidelines being the TVAG’s eventual aim. That said, Tanya Motie has already told me that, though problems may be objectively identified, the BBC won’t necessarily have the money to fix it! I’m an optimistic realist. The IBS’s remit is to maintain standards of professional audio, ergo I think that we should continue to liaise with the TVAG in the hope that we can improve standards. I am pleased to say that the Executive Committee agrees. The Project Prospectus is downloadable from the Resources section