Leading article: Tune in. Turn it up?

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The Independent Online

Is television drama getting more difficult to understand? Or are we all getting older? Our report today on the concerns of the respected Voice of the Listener & Viewer (VLV) pressure group suggests it might be the box, rather than our deteriorating hearing, which is at fault.

The VLV has complained to the controller of BBC1 Jay Hunt that the extensive use of ambient noise and background music in many modern television dramas is leaving an increasing number of us unable to follow what is going on.

Some might be tempted to dismiss such complaints as springing from the same reactionary mentality that powered Mary Whitehouse's "clean up TV" campaign in the 1960s. It is certainly true that sound design in television drama has evolved considerably in recent decades. The manner in which innovative programmes such as The Wire and The Office use background sound is integral to the artistic vision of their creators. Who would want to see such programmes subject to stifling bureaucratic restrictions on sound?

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss any complaints about comprehensibility levels as narrow-minded conservatism and a desire to turn back the clock to the days when BBC technicians wore white lab coats. The fact that some programmes have used background noise and music to powerful dramatic effect does not mean that all film makers are equally adept at it. The generous use of ambient noise, whatever its artistic merits, also surely defeats its very purpose if the majority of the audience cannot follow the drama.

These complaints about the noisiness of television drama also feed into broader concerns over the sound levels in other entertainment media. It has been well-chronicled how cinema multiplexes have cranked up the decibels to ear-splitting levels in recent years. And many a hand reaches for the remote control when an advert break comes on in anticipation of the noise level shooting up unbidden.

Like Iain Duncan Smith, entertainment forms seem to have been turning up the volume of late (with equally unappealing results to those of the former Tory leader). So Ms Hunt is right to participate in a study into the extent of the problem in as far as it touches television drama. It would help to have some hard evidence of just how widespread audience disaffection is over this matter.

It would surely not do commercial broadcasters any harm to get involved in this consultation either. After all, the primary purpose of all programme makers is to please viewers. If comprehensibility is indeed a growing problem it would be in the interests of them all to fix it.

Like the dialogue in television dramas, the concerns of audiences surely ought to be more than just so much background noise.