Great Drama – But Can You Hear What They’re Saying Now?

Louise Willcox MIBS, Executive Committee Member and volunteer to the Listener and Viewer’s TV Audibility Group, reports on her experiences in a major recent exercise to assess the difficulties of dialogue audibility across a range of programmes and broadcasters.

The Voice of the Listener and Viewer’s TV Audibility Group (TVAG), formed in 2007, has been pushing for an objective survey to prove to broadcasters that inaudible dialogue in television programmes had become a major problem and one that needed addressing, urgently. On 1 June 2009 The Independent newspaper penned an article entitled, “Great drama – but can you hear a single word they are saying?” in which it was reported that Jay Hunt, then Controller BBC 1, had agreed to look into the issue – and indeed she had, with the key players including the following: TVAG – Richard Bates, who retired in 1995 from the role of BBC Financial Controller, Regional Broadcasting and the instigator of TVAG. Peter Menneer, former BBC Head of Broadcasting Research from 1979 to 1992. David Walker, a former Head of Engineering Resources for the BBC until 1993. Louise Willcox working on the group as a volunteer, while also being an active sound supervisor and experienced dubbing mixer. BBC – Jay Hunt, Controller BBC 1, followed by Danny Cohen, current Controller BBC. Tanya Motie, Channel Executive BBC One and BBC Three, and a highly motivated individual who introduced me to the TVAG. Tanya has played a crucial role in keeping the momentum going. Mike Armstrong, BBCSenior R&D Engineer, technical advisor bringing findings from previous R&D work in this area. Channel 4 – Paula Carter, Viewers Editor, and another highly motivated character.

What’s Been Happening?

During the second week in August 2010, the BBC “Pulse” on-line audience research group of 20,000 people (around 8000 respondents per day), plus approximately a thousand 65-plus-year-olds who were not on-line (funded through the VLV with assistance from Widex), and a group of volunteers from the RNID, were all asked to focus specifically on the audibility and sound quality of the TV programmes they watched during the week. They were asked to comment only on programmes shown on BBC One, BBC Two, ITV 1, Channel 4, and Five. During this review periods a lot of complaints were made, but the 21 worst offending programmes were earmarked for closer analysis. Tanya Motie and Paula Carter sent DVD copies of the BBC and Channel 4 programmes to David Walker and me. Unfortunately ITV 1 and Five decided not to play, but David and I assessed some of their programmes from off-air recordings, anyway. David Walker performed his assessments using a small LCD TV, while I spent about ten days in total (in-between paid work) sitting in a room, curtains closed, listening to the shows on a mono 14-inch CRT telly (modified so that left and right channels from the DVD player were summed together). I set my monitoring level by listening to the first 30 seconds of programme – after the opening titles – and thereafter didn’t touch the volume control. If I couldn’t hear something I only allowed myself to spool back and listen again, not to turn the volume up. I desperately wished I had a jog-wheel transport controller – it would have saved so much time – and I’m surprised the pause button on my DVD remote didn’t break! To log my assessments of each programme I created a spreadsheet, with separate pages for Mono, Stereo TV and Stereo hi-fi replay systems, typing comments into my laptop directly as I watched. Each program was allocated three columns, the first logging time-code or DVD Running Time, the second what I felt was wrong (or right) with the sound, and the last with what I thought had happened to make the sound substandard (or superb).

It was soon clear that the much publicised complaints about ‘loud music’ were just the tip of the iceberg.

On another page I wrote “General Comments” after I’d watched the whole programme. I hadn’t originally envisaged needing this section, but as I made my assessments I realised that the data and terminology I was collating in the main columns would ultimately need to be interpreted by people who were not sound ‘anoraks’. So I felt that it would help if they understood how that kind of show should properly (in my view) be made, providing a context for my principal comments and observations. Part way through our assessments, David Walker and I met at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in London, to compare notes. First, though, we discussed our hearing faculties – David said he had some slight hearing loss; I declared my hearing to be fine. A bit glib perhaps, but I believe accurate based on a visit to a consultant in 2009 after my daughter had pointed out that I kept asking her to repeat things. After an audiometric test and examination, the consultant said I that had the hearing of a 35-year-old and that I should tell the daughter to stop mumbling! In any case, by and large David and I were getting the same results. The few anomalies we agreed were down to our different monitoring scenarios and his hearing. After assessing all the programmes in mono, I ran out of ‘volunteer’ time. I listened to the first 10 minutes of a few of the programmes using my 36-inch Sony stereo TV but was unable to find the time to monitor every show on broadcast quality monitoring loudspeakers. Interestingly, though, on the stereo TV some dialogue became more audible, especially if the background – be it music or effects – had a wide stereo image. However, the general results were largely the same as for my original mono listening. In all, I managed to assess 17 shows; David’s assessments overlapped 70% of mine, and he assessed the one’s I couldn’t. It was soon clear that the much publicised complaints about ‘loud music’ were just the tip of the iceberg.

View the assessments Louise’s full, detailed reports can be downloaded by IPS members when logged in to the Members’ area.

The full list of programmes reviewed is detailed at the bottom of this article.

Problems Identified

Documentaries/Features Programmes

  • Concealed microphones muddying dialogue, and clothing noise overlaying dialogue.   Asked: what’s the matter with seeing a personal mic on a presenter in a documentary?
  • Reverse perspective: presenter wearing an already indistinct mic buried under a noisy waterproof coat, looking over shoulder, back to camera, the voice getting less audible as he gets larger in shot.
  • The combination of a radio mic on a presenter, and the camera mic for contributors!  Some astonishingly bad sound – none of which was subtitled.

I could go on for pages about the naff quality of the location sound I listened to. Needless to say, it’s all about money – or perceived lack of it – and self-shooting directors working without the safety-net of a trained audio professional. I can’t remember how many times I typed “words are plot!” Magazine Programmes

Concealed microphones muddying dialogue, and clothing noise overlaying dialogue — what’s the matter with seeing a personal mic on a presenter in a documentary?
  • The One Show: the aircon (and crew ‘noises off’) had a starring role. A glass box for a ‘studio’ with a brittle acoustic and, I assumed, retro-fitted aircon to deal with the heat. AC noise roared in under presenters after every insert – insert material that usually had wall-to wall-music all over it (more on that later). The live mix was fine – sound supervisors doing their best, probably with a few gadgets to help, in a bad location. (Aren’t there some empty ‘fit for purpose’ studios about 300m away…?)

Drama Programmes

  • Actors giving vocally minute performances – a struggle to hear them over ambient background noise, and/or their own movement noise. Suffering from what I called “small screen means small voice” syndrome.
  • Dub of background effects dominating small voice performances. Speculated: dubbing mixer either inexperienced or, more likely, under considerable time pressure – especially on ‘Continuing Drama Series’.
  • Wide shots where actors gave very little voice. One scenario involved moving a large sofa – shot huge, dialogue virtually inaudible on my mono TV. There’s no way I could have talked that quietly (no surprise there!) whilst doing something so physical.  Speculated: that it was a brave freelance sound recordist who would push, more than once, for a louder performance these days.
  • The pace of shooting. Shooting speed has been driven-up on continuing dramas like Casualty. Anecdotally, I knew some stressed directors took exception to being asked for longer rehearsal to accommodate complicated moves, or greater voice level.
  • Scenes between two people, where one performer was barking at the other, but the other was whispering back.
  • A high incidence of quiet actors also having very bad diction. As I sat in my darkened room, I imagined a radio drama producer I used to work for screaming “enunciate darling!”
  • Accents were only really a problem when associated with poor diction.

Light Entertainment Programmes

  • John Bishop’s Liverpudlian accent had been complained about, but I found only two places in his show where I couldn’t understand him. There, were, however, several instances of his performance being drowned beneath audience applause and/or laughter – some of which I suspect had been added at the ‘audio-sweetening’ dub and weren’t quite the correct length. Speculated: someone who is prejudiced against anything other than ‘received pronunciation’ would tend to blame the accent, rather than noticing other sounds interfering.
  • Bad edits! Fast editing obviously adds pace. However, new-generation editors don’t seem to realize that when someone has said something that isn’t very distinct, the brain needs more processing time to make sense of it. The breath’s pause seems to be a thing of the past.

Sport Programmes

  • Athletics OB pieces to camera, presenters wearing DPA headsets (which still couldn’t cope), their contribution obliterated by venue announcements and music emanating from a PA stack apparently just off camera. The ridiculousness of what I heard made me laugh out loud; for the sound supervisor I felt pity.

Then There is Music

I made it clear that, if the dialogue is already compromised, music will just make it harder to hear, no matter how appropriately written and balanced.

  • Appropriate Music: There was some music that was very appropriate; tastefully timed and well balanced. However, in a couple of documentaries, despite the pace of editing and the quality of the mix being superb, chunks of the sync sound were horrid. I could imagine the dubbing mixers frustration. Speculated: self shooters were trying to do it all, and failing.
  • Music as wallpaper: Speculated that an editor/director presented with mute, low quality or aurally unusable material from a self-shooting director, probably with no budget for a dub (not that one can rescue everything – as above), defaults to using music as filler.
  • The issue was compounded by inexperience picture editors who didn’t understand:
  • Dynamic range and loudness. Compressed, percussive music mixed too high – just totally inappropriate for use behind wide dynamic range speech.
  1. Music with a lyric – rarely a good idea, unless chosen to be interwoven with voice-over or dramatic dialogue.
  2. Music where the EQ conflicts with the EQ of the dialogue – no knowledge demonstrated of how one could do something about this.
  • Music used instead of an audience: Classic example (non-celebrity) The Weakest Link. Liverpudlian(!) Anne Robinson’s accent was so ‘far back’ that, when she didn’t ‘project’, she lost out to the strident crescendos in the music. Perhaps not such a problem when we all know she’s going to say “You are the Weakest Link, Goodbye!”  However, some of the amateur contestants did not project or enunciate well either. The timed music beds are designed to get louder and evolve into more dense arrangements – creating anxiety and suspense. Ergo, the only solution was to keep the overall level of music a little lower in the balance, in my view. Speculated: that the sound supervisor and gram op were probably recording this show, ‘as live’, day-in, day-out and perhaps losing the will to live!
  • Music written or selected for prestigious documentaries: I knew some shows being assessed had a fully-filled track-lay. I asked: why not hear more of these effects? For one show, the music laid in the final mix ensured only about 30% of that well crafted track-lay could be heard. Music with radically differing styles and pace were overlaid, without any idea of (musical) ‘form’ or a ‘house style’ being applied. Periods of only 10 seconds in an average of 15 minutes running-time where there was no music under presentation – this proportion sustained throughout an hour long show. Often, I could hear the words, but the tendency to have lots of short items, with lots of changes of direction – perhaps fuelled by a belief that the public can only concentrate for three minutes on any one thing – became exhausting, both aurally and psychologically.
  • Music in Sport Programmes: Athletics OB opening montage VTs – the commentary was barely audible, drowned-out both by crowd effects and the highly compressed music. Either no time to rehearse this before going on air, or an inexperienced sound supervisor employed.

It should also be said clearly that it’s really not all bad! There were four programmes that were absolutely fine, in our view. University Challenge, The Queen (the one staring Barbara Flynn), Raol Moat: Inside the Mind of a Killer and Morse. The late 1980’s production of Morse was particularly interesting. How sparse the mix was: low-level effects around dialogue; the scenes felt longer, with a lot less music than is the current fashion, helped by the fact that Barrington Pheloung’s arrangements tended to be quite transparent.

One Other Elephant in the Room

So, it is probably already happening that bad material, shot by inexperienced self-shooters, can be passed to inexperienced picture editors, then transmitted to air through Network Control areas where the sound mix is already an electronic function, programmed into the vision switcher. No sound professional involved, anywhere in the chain.

The one last hope for sound is the picture editor. However, experienced picture editors are becoming a rare breed, as we are! New recruits trained by universities, appear to get little or no insight into sound. So, it is probably already happening that bad material, shot by inexperienced self-shooters, can be passed to inexperienced picture editors, then transmitted to air through Network Control areas where the sound mix is already an electronic function, programmed into the vision switcher. No sound professional involved, anywhere in the chain. A lot of e-mail traffic passed between myself, David Walker, Tanya Motie and Mike Armstrong during this project. In one I mentioned the inconsistency of people’s monitoring at home. For instance, the ‘3D mono’ function on my stereo TV makes much of the dialogue disappear! So I suggested that voice-overs or special trailers before programmes might be use to advise people to set up their TVs correctly before a broadcast starts. A Breakfast TV show appearance by Gary Clarke MIBS quite rightly mentioned that there was currently no guarantee that the balance we provide will be faithfully reproduced at home. After our assessments were submitted, Tanya Motie organised re-mixes of sections of some of the programmes, and found that when background music and effects were reduced the audience was generally able to comprehend dialogue better. No surprises there, really!Mike Armstrong also checked issues such as loudness levels in programmes which had been flagged as problematic.

The BBC Solution

After an initial reluctance to get involved, the BBC and Channel 4 have been forced – by the sheer determination of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer’s TV Audibility Group – to recognise the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the increasingly inaudible dialogue on our small screens. After submitting our assessments, neither David Walker, nor I, nor the BBC Academy sound trainers, nor, as far as I know, anyone from BBC Studios and Post Production were asked what a possible solution might be. However, I was asked if I would like to be involved in the BBC’s proposed solution: “a multi-textured experience (not just words) with examples of best and worst practice – so something tangible, practical, helpful. These on-line modules will be available externally and so can become an industry standard, but internally within the BBC it will be accompanied by a series of workshops including roll-out to all Executive Producers through the Exec Forums throughout the UK. Sound quality will become a formal additional responsibility of the Exec producer [I told them I thought it already was] and will need to be considered at sign-off.”  This is very much a BBC Vision answer to the problem. I declined. I did not feel that ‘how-to’ videos could replace the lack of investment in TV sound training over the last – how many years? The industry is relying on multi-skilled media graduates to replace specialist professionals. I have been employed as a trainer on one week BBC Wood Norton modules to train media students, and I know that a week spent with a team of broadcast professionals in a proper studio guarantees the comment  that “we have learned more in one week here, than we have learned in the previous two years at university”.   Proof that there is no substitute for industry training. There are currently only three BBC Academy TV sound-specific training courses – targeted at BBC Vision recruits. “Sound Recording on Location 1” is one. I am told that few return for “Sound Recording on Location 2” because the researchers that get sent on the first course have either finished their short-term contracts, or are no longer expected to cover sound. “Sound Skills for Self Shooters” is the third. There is no ‘Sound Training Course’ at Television Centre any more (where prospective BBC sound supervisors from all over the country used to get individually mentored hands-on training in all genres of shows); that was stopped just before I became a sound supervisor in 1990. In fact, after April 2011, there will be only four television sound supervisors left at Television Centre, and I don’t know when the last TV sound trainee was employed there, or anywhere else in the country. I just know there are no BBC training courses for them.

On a Positive Note

All that said, I am truly gratified that a lot of comments from our assessments have obviously been used as the bedrock beneath the work that Tanya Motie has initiated since last October. Sound is definitely having its fifteen minutes of fame in the BBC. The Exec Forums are taking place; Anne Laking, BBC Vision’s Academy Partner, was interviewed by Radio 4’s Today programme on 16 March at 0840hrs (not buried at 0640!), and the BBC has produced seven on-line, publicly viewable videos – so far – which can be found at: At a gathering at BBC Television Centre on 16 March, all those involved received thanks from Controller BBC 1, Danny Cohen. He also commented that Dr Brian Cox’s recent comments couldn’t have come at a better time to give the audibility issue additional publicity. I met Tanya Motie for the first time in person, and she was keen for me to pass on that, when we sound professionals experience problems acquiring good sound, we should not fear raising this with the production team, and we should feel safe in the knowledge that there is a corporate will to do something about it, now. On 21 March, I sent a mail to Tanya suggesting a soundie’s ‘whistle-blowers’ e-mail address, for professionals to pass on any problems. It was then that I discovered that Tanya Motie has ‘moved on’, as have several others who were involved. I suspect that, with all the current insecurity at the BBC, the-powers-that-be may, perhaps, consider that they’ve ticked this box, and that they, too, can move on. We shall see – and hear. My full, detailed, assessment reports can be viewed online by IBS members. Simply log in to the IBS site and navigate to File Library.

The Programmes Assessed by Louise Willcox: Athletics OB (BBC One and BBC Two), Casualty (BBC One), Five Days, Ep 2 (BBC One), Dan Cruikshank’s Great Railway Adventures (Five), John Bishop’s Britain (BBC One), Our Drugs War (Channel 4), Raol Moat: Inside the Mind of a Killer (Channel 4), Secret Britain – Crowded South (BBC One), The Deep (BBC One), The One Show (BBC One), The Queen Episode 4 (Channel 4), The Weakest Link (BBC One), University Challenge (BBC Two), Vexed (BBC Two) Additional Programmes David and I Assessed Out of Interest Coast, 2010 production (BBC 1), Morse, late 1980’s production (ITV) Additional Late Requests Saints and Scroungers (BBC One) This programme was actually broadcast in October, but Tanya Motie asked me to assess this specifically as the BBC had received complaints about the sound, and this was raised on Points of View in the same week.