Vigil, Happy Valley, Poldark: dramas that have seen viewers complain in droves over muffled sound and hard-to-understand speech. Now German broadcasting boffins have delivered a solution.
In recent years, numerous drama premieres in the UK have been dogged by negative tabloid headlines, fuelled by complaints on social media. Just in the last year, the BBC’s Vigil and ITV’s The Tower came under fire for muffled speech.
But German public broadcasters have now launched a new ‘clear speech’ soundtrack. It broadcasts alongside the existing stereo soundtrack on TV services. On the ‘clear speech’ soundtrack, background music and sounds are played out more quietly. This helps viewers to focus on the dialogue between actors.
What’s the problem?
The problem with muffled sound has been blamed on a variety of issues. Some claim muffled speech is due to decisions by TV directors. Others place the blame on modern sound equipment. Slim-line TVs can’t incorporate the types of speaker seen on older TVs. And some individual set-ups emphasise bass so much that background sound effects and music drown out speech. And of course, everyone’s hearing is different.
The BBC piloted an online solution to the problem on BBC Taster in 2019. Back then, 3,300 people watched an episode of Casualty with the sound modified to make it easier to follow speech. 80% of viewers said it was an improvement.
And while there’s been little to report in the UK in the intervening years, German public service broadcasters ARD and ZDF have jointly launched ‘clear speech’ on mainstream TV platforms. Since 1st June, the extra soundtrack is available on digital satellite, selected live webstreams and in places on digital terrestrial. The desired audio track is available with in the TV settings. It can also be activated via the settings in the ARD HbbTV (red button) start bar.
Christoph Augenstein, chairman of the ARD Production and Technology Commission commented:
“The feedback we receive shows that many viewers have a great need for better hearing intelligibility. Not only because everyone hears differently – especially as they get older – but also because modern flat-screen televisions have little room for good loudspeakers. Switching to the new “Clear Speech” audio track is a simple way of improving your own listening experience. Background noise and music are played more quietly, and the spoken word is then much easier to understand.”
What’s being done in the UK about it?
As yet, there’s no sign that any UK broadcaster is planning to add an additional soundtrack to their broadcast channels. The BBC Tester experiment in 2019 does show the BBC is aware of the issue. But with UK broadcasters dependent on platform operators like Sky and Freeview to include support for new innovations, progress could be slow.
In the UK, most channels already offer an additional soundtrack for visually impaired viewers: Audio Description adds a narrator to describe scenes between dialogue. ‘Clear speech’ would require a further soundtrack on broadcasts.
Iain Hatton, features writer, RXTV