35 million people cannot hear what’s being said on TV

Almost three quarters of adults can’t hear the TV properly, according to scientific studies of more than 8,000 people.

The first study was co-funded by Danish hearing aid manufacturer Widex and Channel 4, and the second was undertaken by the BBC.

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

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