BBC TV chief: source of mumbling problem is 'incredibly hard' to isolate

Charlotte Moore says the corporation takes sound problems in shows such as Happy Valley ‘incredibly seriously’

The BBC’s TV chief has pledged to tackle problems with sound on hit dramas such as Happy Valley but admitted it is often “incredibly hard” to identify what went wrong.

Charlotte Moore made the promise following complaints that viewers could not hear the dialogue in the latest series of the Sarah Lancashire drama which was watched by more than 8 million people.

It came two years after another BBC1 drama, Jamaica Inn, generated more than 2,000 complaints about muffled conversations, with its writer admitting there was a “major sound problem”.

Moore said the BBC had issued a new set of guidelines to programme makers to attempt to prevent a repeat of the problem.

“Sound has been a big issue, all of us want to make sure that sound levels are absolutely so people can hear the fantastic work we are doing,” Moore told the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in London on Tuesday.

Moore said it was often down to a “unique set of circumstances” when there were problems with sound, and said producers had gone back into the edit suite following complaints about the first episode of Happy Valley to solve the issue.

“After episode one we took everyone back into the edit to really try to make sure, to work very hard to make it crisper and change those levels. It is something we take incredibly seriously,” she said.

Telly addict Andrew Collins reviews the BBC’s enjoyable (but at times inaudible) Jamaica Inn

But she added: “It is incredibly hard to get to the bottom of where things go wrong. It’s often several circumstances and it’s quite hard to isolate if there is one particular problem. It is often several different problems coming together. Sound is a very exact science.”

Moore said she was currently pulling together all the available advice to help programme makers to do “all those final checks” to make sure there were no problems with sound.

Speaking after her conference appearance, Moore said: “Getting to the bottom [of this] is usually a bringing together of several issues, and that is what we are working on with suppliers to make sure these things don’t happen again. We know how difficult it is – there are multiple reasons.

She added: “We have had a couple of instances of issues where people have felt very strongly. We went straight into the edit to see what we could do. Of course none of us want our drama not to be heard. The will is there from all of us.”

Addressing complaints about sound issues earlier this month, BBC director general Tony Hall said he “took all such complaints seriously”.

Back in 2013, Hall highlighted inaudible dialogue as one of the issues he would look to tackle in one of his first interviews as director general. “Actors muttering can be testing,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at.”

Poor sound quality has also been blamed on the new generation of flat TVs, which have less room for speakers than a traditional TV set, with soundbars becoming an increasingly popular addition to people’s front rooms.

“Modern TVs might have fantastic picture quality, but their sound is often disappointing as new slimline TVs have limited space for built-in speakers,” said a report in consumer magazine Which?

However, sound issues appear to have affected BBC productions more than their commercial counterparts. Another BBC drama, crime series Quirke, starring Gabriel Byrne, also attracted complaints about the quality of the sound in 2014.

The BBC has long been trying to find a solution to the problem. Back in 2009, the then BBC1 controller Jay Hunt launched an “audibility project” involving a 20,000 strong panel of viewers and listeners.

The initiative followed complaints about a string of BBC programmes and led to a “best practice” guide for programme makers, not all of which appears to have been heeded.

Viewers have also complained about the volume of music on BBC natural history shows. Professor Brian Cox said in 2011 that the BBC was wrong to turn the volume down on his BBC2 show, Wonders of the Universe, after the first episode prompted more than 100 complaints.

Danny Cohen, the BBC’s former director of television, said about the issue in 2011: “What we discovered was that it was a combination of factors could really create problems – for example a mumbling actor, recorded in a noisy environment with added music.

“What struck me is that many of the problems could be resolved long before a single frame is shot if more emphasis was placed on planning for clear sound.”


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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