Quality Saga pt 2

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PO Box 208 Havant Hampshire PO9 9BQ

4th August 2011

The Lord Patten
Chairman BBC Trust
180 Great Portland Street
London
W1W 5QZ

Dear Lord Patten,

RE: BBC – DOING LESS, BUT MAKING IT SOUND BETTER

We hope the headings below will assist reference.
1. Who are we, and should you take us seriously?
2. What is ‘good’ sound?
3. What do we want and why are we writing to you?
4. Some disturbing facts.
5. What have the public noticed?
6. Who are the TVAG?
7. TV Audibility Survey – of 20,000+ people.
8. What the survey found.
9. BBC Vision’s response to the survey.
10. Why are these skills being lost?
11. Staff security versus freelance fear.
12. The elephant now in the room.
13. The Institute of Broadcast Sound – not averse to, but an instigator of change.
14. Will you meet with us?
Appendix 1.

1 . Who are we, and should you take us seriously?

The Institute of Broadcast Sound was formed in 1977 by experienced Television Sound Supervisors, Senior Radio Studio Managers, Dubbing Mixers, and Sound Recordists from across both the public service and independent broadcast industry. We have been supported by the BBC, ITV and IBA as well as broadcast equipment manufacturers. To qualify for membership, practitioners must have a proven track record for good quality sound acquisition and mixing, and be recommended by established members of the Institute. Many of us have been recipients of Craft ‘sound’ BAFTAs over the 34 years of our Institute’s existence. We will be renamed The Institute of Professional Sound in January 2012 to better reflect the interests of our members now providing expertise in feature films, corporate, new media, as well as radio and television audio.

2. What is ‘good’ sound?

  • The viewer/listener should never have to reach for the volume control once a level has been set on the TV or Radio. This applies to an entire TV channel (including advertisements), not just to individual programmes.
  • The viewer/listener should be able to follow plot – that usually means they should be able to hear the words, and have time to understand their meaning.
  • There should be no aural shocks, except for dramatic effect.
  • There should be no mute footage, except for dramatic effect.

3. What do we want and why are we writing to you?

To re-establish good quality broadcast sound across all networks, but on BBC networks in particular.

Members of our Executive Committee listened to the interviews marking your appointment as Chair of the BBC Trust. You talked about the BBC needing to “do less, better”.

Many of we operational staff started uttering those very words when first Radio 5 Live, then BBC 3, BBC 4, 6 Music, and BBC 7 were created. “Too little butter spread over too large a piece of toast.” was BBC canteen gossip in 1995. Now, most of those canteens no longer exist and many of the gossipers have long since been ‘released into the community’, but we know their views as freelancers have not changed. Jeremy Paxman expressed similar fears when he delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in 2007 – a speech that is still relevant today, if you have time to read it. Latterly, Mark Thomson seems to be preparing to go down in history as the first DG who might actually make the BBC smaller. We hope it also makes Aunty produce better quality programmes – editorially and technically.

We believe that the only way to justify paying for a public service broadcaster (be it BBC originated or independently produced programming) is to ensure that it sets a benchmark, as well as entertaining and educating the public – BBC Charter obligations. That Charter also stipulates that the BBC has a remit to train the industry, as recognised in a 21st February 2011 BBC Academy press release: “As well as training our BBC staff, the Academy also has a remit under the terms of the BBC’s Charter Agreement to train the wider industry.”

We know that, so far as television sound is concerned, the BBC is not setting a benchmark, and it does not train the wider industry in anything other than basic location sound recording techniques. When the current generation of practitioners who mix complex programmes, (eg: Strictly Come Dancing, Later with Jools Holland, Springwatch or Question Time – all mixed by our Institute’s members) finally hang up their headphones, we know our replacements are not waiting in the wings, because we are not passing our skills to them, now.

4. Some disturbing facts.

  1. Sound recordists are rarely employed: the BBC and other broadcasters have almost eradicated the use of experienced sound recordists for television features location work. Television drama seems safe at the moment, but there are huge budgetary pressures in this area too. ‘Technology’ means kit is smaller, and self-shooting directors (recording both sound and pictures) are employed for the majority of factual and features work. However, the public have noticed the degradation in sound quality that has resulted (survey details later).
  2. Lack of training: we know the BBC has not provided training courses for any television Sound Assistants, Deputy Sound Supervisors or Sound Supervisors for at least 15 years. The BBC Academy occasionally still trains some Radio Studio Managers, but even in radio, the push is for producers to do more of their own sound mixing and editing. The recent much heralded (Radio) “2 Day” highlighted some operational inexperience and/or lack of planning – great music balances during Janice Long/Mike Harding and Bob Harris’ hour, but some interviewees were barely audible.
  3. ‘Dubbing’ – where items recorded on location are sent into an acoustically isolated sound mixing area to smooth the “lumpy” audio joins that inevitably occur when single camera-shot material is edited together; where voice-overs, sound effects and incidental music are added, then professionally mixed-down (to ensure the viewer doesn’t have to reach for the volume control, and can hear the plot/words clearly) – this is now regarded as an expensive luxury. Instead producers rely on inexperienced picture editors to do a basic job in noisy edit suites. Inaudible dialogue often results.

For information: Picture editors used to be trained in basic sound mixing techniques, but experienced editors who know what they are doing are expensive and rarely used. BBC Studios has just closed its Post Production department at Television Centre and cheap freelancers – some straight out of media colleges – are the preferred suppliers. We know of several universities where Physics lecturers have had their departments closed and been told to teach ‘media studies’. Frankly, they don’t have our level of expertise to pass on.

5. What have the public noticed?

Perhaps what we think can be discounted because we have a vested interest? However, our paymasters – licence fee payers – are getting very angry. Complaints to the BBC about ‘sound’ have been at, or near, the top of the BBC’s complaints webpage for the last three years, with complainants often ‘shouting’ their annoyance IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

6. Who are the TVAG?

The Voice of the Listener and Viewer Television Audibility Group (TVAG) was formed in 2007. The group consists of Richard Bates, (former BBC Financial Controller, Regional Broadcasting, retired 1995); Peter Menneer (former BBC Head of Broadcasting Research, retired in 1992); and David Walker (former Head of an Engineering Resources department for the BBC, retired in 1993). They initially complained about the overuse, inappropriateness and loudness of incidental music, obliterating dialogue. This proved to be the tip of a very large iceberg.

7. TV Audibility Survey – of 20,000+ people.

The TVAG cornered Jay Hunt, the then Controller of BBC 1, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009. The upshot was that the BBC and Channel 4 agreed to survey the public about TV Audibility on the five terrestrial TV channels. ITV and Channel Five decided not to ‘play’, but their programmes were surveyed anyway.

During the second week in August 2010:

  • The BBC made available its Pulse on-line audience research group of 20,000 people (around 8,000 respondents per day).
  • The VLV, with assistance from Widex (hearing-aid manufacturer), funded a paper survey of approximately one thousand over 65-year-olds who were not on-line.
  • A group of RNID volunteers were also surveyed.

The survey asked questions about sound quality, audibility of dialogue, fluctuations in volume, style and quantity of incidental music across the week’s television programmes.

The BBC, in particular, was taken aback by the number of complaints, the anger expressed by some respondents, and the fact that many of its flagship programmes were criticised. Casualty and two other prestigious dramas, The One Show, and The Weakest Link all made it into the worst ‘cut’.

The 22 most criticised programmes were earmarked for closer analysis. DVD copies of the BBC and Channel 4 programmes were sent for assessment to David Walker of the TVAG, and Louise Willcox – freelance, ex-BBC, Sound Designer, and Executive Committee member of our Institute of Broadcast Sound.

After analysis, their report was published to the BBC and Channel 4.

8. What the survey found.

  • Concealed microphones and clothing noise muddying dialogue.
  • Camera microphones used to cover dialogue – dialogue unintelligible.
  • Drama: dialogue from actors unclear – voices so quiet that their own movement noise was louder than their vocal performance.
  • Actor’s dialogue badly enunciated.
  • ‘Gutless’ voice-overs, recorded in boxy acoustics – edit suites, perhaps? No dynamic control. (ie the voice too quiet to be heard easily over music and effects. Voice-overs should normally be recorded in a voice-over booth, in a ‘dead’ acoustic, and mixed by a sound professional who is schooled in the use dynamics gadgetry to treat the voice to sit on top of the rest of the sound design.)
  • Fast paced editing making dialogue hard for the brain to ‘process’. An intake of breath to allow a ‘thought pause’ is fast becoming a thing of the past.
  • Music overwhelming dialogue. Inexperienced mixers – picture editors, or dubbing mixers? – not reducing the level of music enough to ensure dialogue is heard. This was found across all genre of programming – sport, drama, features and documentaries.
  • Music used as “filler”. Filling gaps where, apart from the voice-over script, there were no other usable effects from location, and no budget apparently spent on a dub where effects to match pictures could have been added from sound libraries.
  • Music added to a programme without any sense of musical form or house style. An apparently random selection, often in short bursts, that viewers complained simply didn’t make ‘sense’.
  • Music used instead of an audience – eg the Weakest Link. A device to manipulate emotions and create suspense, and timed to climax at the end of each round. However, some music was too loud and overwhelmed the speech.
  • Sport programmes where music and crowd noise obliterated commentary.
  • Sport location in-vision positions set-up adjacent to public address (PA) speakers – the spill from the venue PA drowning dialogue from the presenters despite their microphones being only an inch from their mouths.

9. BBC Vision’s response to the survey.

Information you may know: BBC Resources Ltd, managing television craft and operational expertise, was separated from the BBC, proper, in 1995. The sale of Res Ltd as one entity failed, but areas have been sold off or outsourced over the years. The remaining areas that could not be sold were subsumed back into the BBC. However, managerially, the BBC had anticipated a successful sale of the whole company, and there is currently no television operational, practical management on the Board of Management. The BBC is controlled by ‘creative thinkers’ only – ex production and journalism departments. This is why our heading focuses on BBC Vision’s response.

BBC Vision set the publicity machine in motion, with interviews on the Today and BBC Breakfast programmes. Attention was drawn to the survey having been done (though not credited to the tenacity of the VLV). They commissioned and shot seven ‘how to do sound’ videos, perhaps thinking that they were fulfilling the Charter obligation to train the industry by making the videos viewable by the public. The videos can be seen here: www.bbc.co.uk/academy/collegeofproduction/search?page=1&q=Audibility

The BBC have also issued a couple of edicts – which can be seen here: www.bbc.co.uk/academy/collegeofproduction/tv/sound_matters_cohen www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/page/guidance-hearing-summary

Whilst we applaud any attempt to move ‘sound’ up the agenda, we practical (and creative) people do not see these videos or edicts as the answer.

Knowing where to put a microphone to get the best sound; knowing that if the performance is bad, a well-placed microphone (or a dub) can’t fix the problem; knowing how different microphones work and which are appropriate for different sound sources; finally, knowing how to pace, treat and balance sound to make an aurally intelligent and understandable programme; all this is becoming a dying skill that no number of videos will rescue. Reversing the decline in quality needs the provision of training in facilities where the trainee initially has the freedom to fail, and where the aural effects of the use of different microphones, sound gear and techniques can be demonstrated, compared and assessed; followed by mentoring in the workplace.

The BBC Academy’s own ‘sound’ trainers (based at Wood Norton, near Evesham) were not consulted about the seven videos. They have been completely forgotten throughout the whole process. Whether deliberately, or through ignorance, we know not.

BBC Research department was consulted (the blue-sky thinkers of the engineering world), and they are doing good work investigating “loudness” issues (that’s a whole other essay). However, we suspect BBC Vision see them as fellow creative thinkers – albeit ‘engineers’ whom they have learned they can’t quite do without.

10. Why are these skills being lost?

The ultimate culprit is reduced programme budgets: so many hours of broadcasting to be filled and too little money to do it properly.

You won’t find many of our members baulking at the idea of the BBC cutting a network or two if the result is a large enough budget to do our job professionally.

Sound has always been seen as the least important craft in television – how many times might you have heard a director say ‘it will be alright in the dub’? When budgets are cut, sound is one of the first things to be sacrificed. However, there is now some evidence that, even when there is a huge budget (eg The Wonders of the Universe), a director or producer’s understanding of what a good sound design should be has already been lost (or they invite the composer to the dub – always a bad idea!), and the skills which dubbing mixers employ to mix sound tastefully, ensuring intelligible dialogue, are being eroded.

11. Staff security versus freelance fear.

When ‘sound’ practitioners are employees of the broadcaster, they stand a better chance of forming trusting relationships with production staff, developing innovative techniques and sharing them with colleagues (example: ensuring we heard the wedding vows at the recent Royal Wedding without seeing microphones). Staff are also more likely to raise their heads above the parapet, for instance: pointing out to an assertive director that no matter how familiar Professor Brian Cox may be with his Wonders of the Universe script (having helped write it, and rehearsed it several times), Mr and Mrs J Public still need to hear the words.

A freelance will think twice before passing on innovative ideas (in fear of losing their ‘unique selling point’) and will also be reticent about disagreeing with someone indirectly responsible for employing them: “Do I fight for better intelligibility, or keep quiet and guarantee I’ll be working next week?”

The majority of broadcast sound practitioners are now freelance. There are only four staff television sound supervisors left at Television Centre.

We have no political agenda; simply stating the facts as we find them.

12. The elephant now in the room.

Material filmed by self-shooting directors – with questionable sound acquisition skills – goes on to be edited by someone who doesn’t understand how to mix sound. The resulting programme is aired through a transmission area (Red Bee’s NC 1, 2, 3, 4) where no person controls ‘sound’ – the sound ‘mix’ is a function programmed into the vision mixer buttons operated by the Network Director. We are already broadcasting programmes where no sound professional has been involved anywhere in the broadcast chain. No surprise that dialogue audibility is often compromised, and that volume is inconsistent – not just within individual programmes, but across whole networks.

13. The Institute of Broadcast Sound – not averse to, but an instigator of change.

Audio digital technology has actually moved faster than video – with our encouragement. We ensure that our members learn about new techniques and equipment from seminars and training courses that we organise.

For years, sound professionals have been recording digital audio on formats that have evolved from digital audio tape (DAT) and CDs, to audio files stored on hard disks and solid state media. Location cameras have only just taken the leap from digital tape to hard disk recorders.

14. Will you meet with us?

We estimate that we have ten years to address this issue before our unique skills are lost to the world.

Sound is the essential information carrier in over 80% of television programming. Simply put, words are plot and many broadcasters seem hell-bent on losing it. We would like to see the BBC buck that trend, and we would be delighted to meet you to discuss how this could be achieved.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, not inconsiderable, document.

Yours sincerely,
Louise Willcox Sound Designer and Executive Committee Member On behalf of The Institute of Broadcast Sound

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Tel: 024-7634-0102
Mob: 07795-282-938
Email: louise@dwrassociates.co.uk

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