What? 35 million Brits can’t properly hear what’s being said on TV

1st April 2013

The first study into speech intelligibility on TV has revealed that 71 per cent of UK adults cannot always hear clearly what is being said. The research comprised two studies jointly planned and run in tandem. The first was co-funded by Danish hearing aid manufacturer Widex and Channel 4, and the second was undertaken by the BBC.

A total of 8,000 members of the BBC Pulse adult online panel, and 508 non-internet users aged over 65s took part in the study.

The Widex/C4 Study was the brainchild of a trio of retired BBC executives and research specialists. It was conducted to test the hypothesis – based on anecdotal evidence and complaints to the pressure group Voice of the Listener & Viewer - that intrusive background music was obscuring the speech of actors and presenters to the extent that it was impairing intelligibility and understanding.

In the study 70 per cent of the online adults surveyed recorded problems (59 per cent occasionally, 11 per cent always or often) hearing what was being said. For the over 65s age group this percentage rose to 76 per cent (occasionally 59 per cent, always/often 17 per cent).

“This is a worryingly large number of people whose enjoyment of TV programmes is being diminished by not being able to properly hear what is being said,” commented Widex hearing health expert Gary Holland.

However, the biggest surprise revealed by the Widex/C4 Study was that the issue of poor speech intelligibility had much more to do with technical issues during a programmes recording than with the subsequent overlaying of a soundtrack. Detailed analysis of 22 programmes identified as causing difficulties revealed that the majority of audibility problems resulted from the method by which speech is recorded. Adding background music made the audibility worse.

The BBC is so concerned at the findings that it has launched an industry-wide training initiative through the BBC Academy. A series of training modules based on the findings are being made available to the whole broadcasting industry. They will also be used in college courses including the National Film and TV School.

The Widex hearing health expert Gary Holland added: “Being able to hear clearly what people say is a pre-requisite of enjoying and sustaining social interaction. This includes being able to hear the spoken word on TV. Broadcasters and programme makers have got to get their act together to resolve a significant problem. The BBC should be congratulated for the speed with which it has taken on board the findings and the initiative it has launched.”

Other Key Findings:

* 62  per cent of over 65s from the Widex/Channel 4 survey describe the use of background music as reducing their enjoyment of a programme.

* Of those over 65s with poor or very poor hearing 99 per cent have difficulties hearing speech clearly on TV even though 61 per cent use hearing aids.

Widex hearing health expert Gary Holland: “Speech intelligibility is one of the Widex keystones. The company strives to improve speech understanding for hearing aid wearers – investing heavily in technology that delivers just that through its hearing aids. But the effectiveness of that technology is seriously compromised if broadcasters are not transmitting speech at the appropriate sound levels. That’s why this project was so important.”
As many as one programme in five watched by those with poor/very poor hearing presented them with spoken word problems.

The research was supported by Voice of the Listener & Viewer and undertaken with the support and assistance of the BBC and RNID (now called Action on Hearing Loss).

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