TV viewers could soon FINALLY be free of mumbling actors as BBC trials technology that turns down background noise and boosts voices
- BBC is trialling technology that will allow viewers to tune out background noise
- A recent episode of Casualty was the first show to be made with the new tool
- A version of the episode on the BBC website now features a slider button
- Shifting it to the left reduces background noise, music included, to make the dialogue clearer
Booming soundtracks and incomprehensible actors often make television hard to follow – until now.
The BBC is trialling technology that will allow viewers to tune out background noise, boost characters’ voices and – hopefully – make plots easier to follow.
A recent episode of BBC One medical drama Casualty was the first show to be made with the new tool, The Times reported.
A version of the episode on the BBC website now features a slider button – moving it to the right retains the standard audio and shifting it to the left reduces background noise, music included, to make the dialogue clearer.
Mumbling concerns: The BBC said in February that the real problem with Happy Valley – in which Sarah Lancashire plays a hard-nosed policewoman – was the Yorkshire accent
The project is targeted at the 11 million Britons with hearing loss and any others who struggle to make out what actors are saying.
Commuters streaming shows on noisy buses and trains could also benefit from the technology.
Frustrated viewers have filed thousands of complaints with the BBC after they were unable to make out the dialogue in tense dramas like Jamaica Inn and Happy Valley.
Their anger prompted a national debate about actors who don’t enunciate – with the issue even being raised in parliament.
Lord Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, who is blind, criticised actors who tried to create atmosphere by mumbling on-screen in 2017.
‘Atmosphere is fine if you can lip read,’ he said in the House of Lords. ‘When you can’t, the mumbling becomes not just an irritant, but an impossibility.’
Each individual element of sound in a programme is graded in a hierarchy based on how important it is to the plot. Some sound effects – like the beep of a heart monitor in medical shows like Casualty – are crucial to an episode’s narrative.
The new tech allows these more important noises to stay prominent, while less essential sounds are turned down.
Lauren Ward, the project’s chief, told The Times: ‘The goal is all about accessibility, and making sure the stories we are trying to tell can be accessed by lots of different people with lots of different needs.’
The response from viewers has already been overwhelmingly positive, she added. The pilot episode of Casualty has been viewed by 3,300 people online, with 80 per cent describing it as an improvement.
War and Peace: The big budget adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel starring James Norton and Tuppence Middleton garnered rave reviews from many, but for others it became an exercise in lip-reading
The technology is still experimental but could soon become mainstream both online on iPlayer and on broadcast television.
The BBC plans to move towards a more personalised system of broadcasting called ‘object-based media’, which will allow TV shows to be broken down into sounds and frames and rearranged in different ways for different viewers.
‘It’s aimed at people with hearing loss, but the effects of hearing loss are very similar to trying to listen in a high noise environment,’ Miss Ward said.
‘If you’re trying to listen to a show on your mobile phone on the Tube, a lot of the challenges are very similar.’
Director-general Tony Hall ordered the BBC to investigate the issue in 2013. ‘I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at.’
JAMAICA INN, QUIRKE AND WAR AND PEACE ‘MUMBLING’ IN BBC TV DRAMAS
The corporation has had many problems with the sound on some of its other major TV series.
In January, some viewers of the BBC’s version of War and Peace complained about being unable it to hear it properly due to the actors mumbling.
The big budget adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel starring James Norton and Tuppence Middleton garnered rave reviews from many, but for others it became an exercise in lip-reading.
Viewer Janice Mitchell tweeted at the time: ‘Why on earth was the actor playing Pierre in War and Peace chosen as all he does is mumble? I can hardly understand a word he says.’
Two years ago the 2014 lavish adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s book Jamaica Inn drew more than 2,000 complaints about sound quality – and the BBC blamed actors for mumbling.
What did he say? Two years ago the 2014 lavish adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s book Jamaica Inn (pictured) drew more than 2,000 complaints about sound quality – and the BBC blamed actors for mumbling
Viewers complained that they could not hear the actors and in many cases their thick accents were impenetrable – and the BBC said midway through the series that they would change sound levels.
Responding to criticism at the time, the BBC’s drama commissioner Ben Stephenson admitted there was an issue with the show, adding: ‘I think actors not being clear is one part of it.
‘But my understanding about the complaints about Jamaica Inn was more complex than that, so I think it’s probably not right to just single out that, but clearly we want actors to speak clearly.’
Meanwhile crime drama Quirke was criticised for the same issue of mumbling in May 2014, with viewers saying they had to switch on subtitles or turn up the volume to the maximum setting.
Set in 1950s Dublin and based on the novels by Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, Quirke follows the city’s chief pathologist, played by Gabriel Byrne, as he investigates a murder.
But many of the 4.2million who watched the first episode in the three-part series struggled to follow the action, although a BBC spokesman said there were ‘no reported problems or complaints’.