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Television Broadcasts: Audibility

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 4 April 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consult United Kingdom television broadcasters, particularly the BBC, to ensure that the viewing public can clearly hear the dialogue, particularly in dramas.

My Lords, there have been a number of dramas over the past few years in which the dialogue has been difficult for some people to hear. TV viewers should be able to hear and understand their favourite shows. It is a long-standing principle, however, that government do not interfere in broadcasters’ operational activities, and therefore it would not be right for government to consult on this matter.

My Lords, that is an extremely disappointing Answer. Is my noble friend aware that there are 25 million licence fee holders who want to hear the dramas, particularly on the BBC, which is the main offender, and that they want clear audibility? Against that background, does he recognise that all this problem started in 2014 with the drama “Jamaica Inn”? There were well over 1,000 written complaints to the BBC about the inaudibility of that show. That was followed by “Happy Valley”, “To Walk Invisible”, “Taboo” and recently “SS-GB”. Against that background, is it appropriate that the ordinary viewer has to consult subtitles to understand what the dialogue is? If my noble friend cannot apply pressure on the chairman of the BBC, does he recognise that someone will have to make a complaint to Ofcom?

My noble friend, as always, goes to the heart of the matter. I completely agree that viewers should be able to understand dialogue as they first view a programme. I am clear that this is a matter that the BBC takes seriously, and it has issued new guidelines as recently as December 2016. To put things in perspective, though, the BBC makes 22,000 hours of new programmes every year, so since 2014—the year to which my noble friend referred—that is 66,000 hours of new material, and I think there have been audibility problems with six programmes.

My Lords, while I partly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that some producers, in pursuit of authenticity, insist that people mumble, usually in indecipherable regional accents as well, does the Minister agree that the main problem lies with the design of modern television sets? Thin LED television sets have very poor sound systems. I must confess that in my own case, although obviously not in the case of somebody as young as the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, advancing years tend to have something to do with turning up the volume.

My Lords, the noble Lord is exactly right. There are many reasons why audibility could be a problem. However, the fact is that it is the responsibility of broadcasters to produce programmes that are audible under normal conditions, and they always try to do that. At the end of the day, no broadcaster wants to make programmes that people cannot hear.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that now more than ever the BBC is needed to deliver real news and ditch fake news, especially on a day when our own Prime Minister has condemned the National Trust for something it has not done while she is trying to do deals in a country where, if you tried to organise an Easter egg hunt, you would probably end up in prison?

All the channels have a responsibility to provide impartial news and are regulated by Ofcom, including, very soon, the BBC.

Will the Minister agree that the fashion for mumbling dialogue in search of greater truth—because that is what it is all about—is simply that, a fashion, and not a new one? We had a lot of trouble with it in the 1950s and 1960s. When it comes to an unfortunate fashion, the Government have no proper role other than to hope it will soon pass.

My Lords, it is all about editorial policy, and the director is in charge. One person’s mumbling is another person’s atmosphere.

My Lords, atmosphere is fine if you can lip-read but when you cannot, the mumbling which is indecipherable to most people becomes not just an irritant but an impossibility. I hope the Government will lean on the new regulator, Ofcom, to bring a bit of common sense so that when somebody whispers to you, it is expected that you will hear the whisper, and when someone talks to you on television, it is hoped that eventually you will be able to hear them.

I did not quite catch the last bit of that question. Of course, Ofcom’s Code on Television Access Services sets out the obligations on TV broadcasters to provide subtitling and audio description and signing, and my noble friend Lord Borwick’s amendment has given the Government the power to introduce that for on-demand services as well.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my interests as a producer and director. Will the Minister agree with me that in our regional and national theatres, on screen and in the cinema, we have a wealth of the finest actors in the world, and, although I am very sympathetic to the noble Lord, that we would prefer fine performance over fine diction?

My Lords, as many noble Lords may look after elderly people, they will know that television is a great companion. Will the Minister agree that many young actors and people in general do not enunciate clearly—I am afraid that I take issue with the previous speaker—and not as clearly as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, did, when you could hear even his softest tone? Elocution and language are so important. Will the Minister agree that if people spoke more clearly, there would be less misunderstanding and less trouble in the world?

My Lords, I am not an expert on enunciation, but I am told that it is all to do with your diaphragm.

My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to agree with my noble friend Lord Fellowes that when dialogue is written it is always clear. A great part of the problem may be that modern televisions are all screen and the speakers face backwards. It is bound to be a technological problem when the speakers face away from you, apart from the fact that of course we are all getting a little older and perhaps deafer.

My Lords, I certainly do not agree that all written dialogue is comprehensible, although my noble friend is an obvious exception to that. The point is that the director is in charge of the entire programme and should listen to the rushes and to what he has produced. Sometimes it is perfectly reasonable for an actor to face away from the camera but it is important that he can still be heard.