Quality Saga pt 5

Simon Bishop, Chair of the IPS, wrote to George Entwistle, the new (albeit short-lived) Director General of the BBC, on 16 October 2012 in response to Mark Thompson’s letter (published on this website – see Quality Saga pt 4.) This is what IPS Chairman’s letter said:

The Director General
British Broadcasting Corporation
White City
Wood Lane
W12 7TS
16th October 2012

Dear Mr. Entwistle,


Please find enclosed copies of correspondence between Lord Patten, Mark Thompson and ourselves, the Institute of Professional Sound (IPS). Our transition from the Institute of Broadcast Sound to the IPS, our own working schedules (it’s been a busy year!) and the announcement of your appointment, have been responsible for the 12 month delay in writing this response to Mark Thompson’s letter of 3rd October 2011.

We had entered into a discussion with Mr Thompson regarding what our 500+ members feel is a decline in the standards of sound mixing heard on many programmes. May I point out that we are specifically interested in the ‘operational’ standards as opposed to technical standards – the actual moving of faders rather than the maintaining of equipment (a common misunderstanding, since there are sound ‘engineers’ who mix programmes, and sound ‘engineers’ who ensure that the mixing desks and studio equipment are serviced and working properly) – we often refer to it as ‘craft’ mixing.

We still have our concerns in this area: in fact, we perceive that the situation has worsened in the last year. I gather that only two weeks ago it was announced that, of only four remaining craft sound mixers (Sound Supervisors) at Television Centre, two are to be made redundant on account of the move away from Wood Lane, and yet most if not all of the programmes made at TVC will still have to be made somewhere (Elstree/London Studios/wherever).

Our greatest concerns, however, are with respect to training, and the legacy that we are now creating for generations of sound mixers to come. The nub of it is that there is little or no training being given by the BBC, or anyone else at the moment, and we are desperately concerned that standards of craft mixing will drastically fall in the future, when younger technicians move up, but with little or no training to fall back on.

May I pick up on a few of the points that Mark Thompson made in his letter of a year ago.

1) MT says “Turning to the specific point about Academy sound trainers not being consulted on the content of our training videos. We felt that the findings from the audibility survey; Louise’s own comprehensive study; and the use of highly experienced sound professionals (George Foulgham, dubbing mixer and Scott Talbot, sound supervisor), to appear in, script, and structure their films, provided adequate and appropriate consultation.”

We understand that the BBC Academy sound trainers, who were not consulted in any way on the making of sound training videos, will all, bar one, be made redundant in April of 2013.

2) MT says “In her letter Louise suggests that no number of videos and edicts can train a whole industry and we absolutely agree with this. The intention of the films is to highlight the importance of good sound and to re-educate the production community.”

Whilst we all pretty much agree with the above, it might be better to ask the question ‘what or who will train the next generations of the industry?’ We understand that part of the BBC’s Charter is to train the industry, but as the BBC’s metamorphosis into the Publisher Broadcaster model continues, how can you reconcile that obligation? Perhaps the BBC Academy no longer sees this as part of its remit? I watched all of the videos this afternoon – I learned that I have to ‘face the mic the right way’, and watched an interview in which a PPM meter was repeatedly referred to as a monitor (which is usually how a loudspeaker or TV is referred to). I watched two videos, Audio Levels and Producing a Radio Package, in which there are obvious, and fundamental, mixing errors which anyone can hear. I added up the running lengths of all the sound training videos, and the total running time is about 60 minutes and 50 seconds. Take off the logos and branding and there is less than 60 minutes of content to be had out of the lot.

3) MT says (or might the following have been written by the BBC Academy?) “We will, however, maintain our commitment to providing the required levels of training in sound and other craft skills…”

We’d like to suggest that, bearing in mind some of the above, this is definitely not going to be the case in the sound craft area, on present evidence.

4) MT says (possibly the Academy) “Our Centre of Technology remains our centre of engineering excellence. We have recently put in place two attachments at the Centre of Technology to help with training for BBC North and our Broadcasting House in W1…….but this will still leave a strong core team of engineering trainers to support the BBC and the wider industry.”

We wonder if the Academy, whether deliberately, or through ignorance, are being misleading? The Centre of Technology trains the engineers that install and maintain the equipment that the craft sound operators use. We believe it is the College of Production’s remit to train ‘sound operations’.

5) MT says (possibly the Academy) “The Centre of Technology provides a series of training courses for new recruits in engineering and technology areas. These courses, which form part of the BBC’s Technology Foundation Programme, culminate in the award of ‘BBC Engineer Qualified. …… This rigorous approach to engineering excellence helps to maintain the BBC’s heritage in broadcast technology…. It’s worth noting that one of the Centre’s most popular courses with external organisations is the High Definition Standards and Measurement course….”

All of the courses mentioned are to train engineers, not sound assistants, gram ops, sound editors, sound supervisors, dubbing mixers or Foley operators. Indeed, IPS members are often hired (freelance) by the BBC Academy to help with a studio ‘familiarisation’ module, which is part of most of the courses listed.

This module ensures that engineers will understand what is going on when they walk into, for example, an adrenalin-filled gallery during a live transmission. The ‘most popular’ course mentioned re HD standards and Dolby E is another red herring. Some of this course is relevant to sound supervisors and sound guarantees (5.1 metadata and understanding what happens when up and down converting sound formats) but the rest is primarily about sound encoders talking to each other.

We can pretty much categorically state that the College of Production’s Location Sound 1 and 2 courses are the only sound operations training courses undertaken by the BBC Academy. Delegates are, with rare exception, members of production teams learning to self shoot. We are told that they seldom progress to the second, more advanced, course, before their contract ends or they are promoted.

The Challenge:

There is:

  • No TV sound operational hands-on training co-ordinated by the BBC Academy, or anyone else as far as we can discover, with the possible exception of the Tonmeister Music and Sound recording course run by Surrey University – but this is not broadcast specific.
  • No organised mentored learning in TV studio environments. Freelancers (the vast majority of practitioners now) will pass on best practice to colleagues on the odd days they are exposed to each other, but only if it doesn’t threaten their future employment.
  • A huge ignorance and often, lack of concern by the ‘employer’ (be it whole BBC/ITV organisations, or one production team) about ‘sound’ in general.
  • A ‘market place’ that is flooded with inadequately trained operators (often cheaper than experienced practitioners – money the focus for all production managers, of course).
  • A cornucopia of home viewing/listening devices with hugely varying audio formats and quality of speaker systems, plus the varying bit rates and types of data compression used by the digital networks hosting our broadcasts.

You can, perhaps, see why we are concerned.

A member of the BBC Academy’s Centre of Technology’s training team told us, recently, that BBC engineers are trained in the way that sound operators used to be trained, ie : a beginning-of-career foundation course, away from the workplace, followed by experience and mentored training in the workplace; then short, specialised, courses as either technology changes, or as required by the BBC to improve competence/qualify individuals for promotion.

This method creates BBC broadcast engineers that are regarded as the best in the world. The Centre of Technology currently earns a lot of money for the Academy by training engineers from around that world. This form of training has not been provided for TV sound operators for over 15 years. However, there are now very few, if any, TV ‘sound’ departments left in the BBC (see above re TVC redundancies). Most effort is hired-in.

  • We feel that the BBC Academy, so far as sound operations are concerned, is a reactive, not pro-active, organisation now. It won’t provide instruction unless the customer requests it.
  • That said: Production often don’t know what they don’t know, so how do they know what training to request?
  • Training costs budgets money that Production teams, now, might not want to ‘waste’.

In BBC Radio it looks like Studio Managers (sound operators) are going to evolve into ‘Assistant Producers’. If so, at least they will still be employed by the BBC. Can we assume that, in the future, they will continue to be trained by the Academy (despite all, but one, of the trainers being made redundant?)

In BBC TV, the publisher broadcaster + service company model is now the case. For example, BBC Sport in Salford, where facilities and operational staff are managed by a service company – The Farm.

The Farm has a core of around five sound staff, who have been employed because they are already trained professionals (ex BBC OBs that became SISLive OBs – another example of a service company). The remaining effort is freelance.

At the moment, there is still an ageing pool of ex-BBC and ITV/IBA TV and radio staff, trained by their previous employer available to be hired-in; but who is going to train the new-to-industry freelancers required by the service companies for the future?

The degradation in broadcast sound standards is tangible proof that there is a challenge to be met. The results of the TV Audibility Survey have gone a small way to fighting the lack of respect for the sound profession in general, but memories are erased quickly when budgets tighten.

We cannot turn the clock back, but we do want to work with you to meet this challenge whilst we still have practitioners alive with the skills to help. As a past Controller of Knowledge Commissioning, and Deputy Editor of the Tomorrow’s World programme, we hope you will have an understanding of, and empathy with, the logic of our concerns.

I do hope that the above feels like light relief after some of what you have had to wade through in the last couple of weeks. Welcome to the big chair, in the big office!!

Yours sincerely,
Simon Bishop, FRGS, MIPS, AMPS
Chairman, Institute of Professional Sound

Cc: Chair, BBC Trust
Voice of the Viewer and Listener

(go to Quality Saga pt 6)