Have you watched a film or TV program at home, only to be frustrated that you cannot understand what the actors are saying because their voices are muffled or because they are drowned out by background music? Do you ever resort to switching on the subtitles for your streaming service just to follow the story? I have, and we are not alone, per an article by Devin Gordon for The Atlantic.
…according to Onnalee Blank, the four-time Emmy Award–winning sound mixer on Game of Thrones, is that it’s not your fault that you can’t hear well enough to follow this stuff. It’s not your TV’s fault either, or your speakers — your sound system might be lousy, but that’s not why you can’t hear the dialogue. “It has everything to do with the streaming services and how they’re choosing to air these shows,” Blank told me.
The reason you cannot hear what is being said is that the ultimate version of films and television shows used to be controlled by people who cared about whether you understood the story, whilst now the final product is affected by technologists who think more about their technology than the human audience.
Specifically, it has everything to do with LKFS, which stands for “Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale” and which, for the sake of simplicity, is a unit for measuring loudness. Traditionally it’s been anchored to the dialogue. For years, going back to the golden age of broadcast television and into the pay-cable era, audio engineers had to deliver sound levels within an industry-standard LKFS, or their work would get kicked back to them. That all changed when streaming companies seized control of the industry, a period of time that rather neatly matches Game of Thrones’ run on HBO. According to Blank, Game of Thrones sounded fantastic for years, and she’s got the Emmys to prove it. Then, in 2018, just prior to the show’s final season, AT&T bought HBO’s parent company and overlaid its own uniform loudness spec, which was flatter and simpler to scale across a large library of content. But it was also, crucially, un-anchored to the dialogue.
Blank was especially critical of the role played by AT&T in undermining the entertainment business they had purchased for USD85.4bn in 2018, only to offload it four years later because their management team lacked the competence to run it.
“So instead of this algorithm analyzing the loudness of the dialogue coming out of people’s mouths,” Blank explained to me, “it analyzes the whole show as loudness. So if you have a loud music cue, that’s gonna be your loud point. And then, when the dialogue comes, you can’t hear it.” Blank remembers noticing the difference from the moment AT&T took the reins at Time Warner; overnight, she said, HBO’s sound went from best-in-class to worst. During the last season of Game of Thrones, she said, “we had to beg [AT&T] to keep our old spec every single time we delivered an episode.” (Because AT&T spun off HBO’s parent company in 2022, a spokesperson for AT&T said they weren’t able to comment on the matter.)
Because technologists do not understand what they are doing, they sometimes throw more technology at the problem they created for themselves.
Netflix still uses a dialogue-anchor spec, she said, which is why shows on Netflix sound (to her) noticeably crisper and clearer: “If you watch a Netflix show now and then immediately you turn on an HBO show, you’re gonna have to raise your volume.” Amazon Prime Video’s spec, meanwhile, “is pretty gnarly.” But what really galls her about Amazon is its new “dialogue boost” function, which viewers can select to “increase the volume of dialogue relative to background music and effects.” In other words, she said, it purports to fix a problem of Amazon’s own creation. Instead, she suggested, “why don’t you just air it the way we mixed it?”
It might be assumed that older people are just imagining reasons for why they need to turn up the volume as they grow deaf. But the article cites statistics which indicate young people may be more reliant on subtitles than the old.
Now subtitles are everywhere, and in fact, they may already be our default mode. According to Preston Smalley, Roku’s vice president of viewer product, a 2022 internal survey revealed that 58 percent of subscribers use subtitles: 36 percent of them switch the subtitles on because of a diagnosed hearing impairment; 32 percent do it out of force of habit. (The remaining third cite a stew of situational issues, such as kids sleeping nearby, other people in the room, and poor audio quality.) Many of the people using subtitles, in other words, do not need them.
And as it turns out, it is a Millennial thing, or at least Millennials are leading the way. A full two-thirds of Roku’s Millennial customers use subtitles, more than any other generation, including seniors, though Smalley attributes that in part to technical hurdles, which is a polite way of saying that older users don’t always know how to turn them on.
The data presented by the article is not sufficient to definitively explain the increased use for subtitles for films and television shows. However, the poor mixing of audio by streaming services would not be the first example of technology companies showing insufficient interest in whether the fundamentals of their product satisfy the customer’s basic needs. AT&T is primarily a phone company; you might think the crux of their expertise lies in determining whether customers can hear each other. But if you make domestic and international calls as frequently as I do, using all sorts of comms providers, then you will appreciate how much time can be wasted at the beginning of each conversation just because one or other party cannot understand what was just said. Perhaps the problem lies in customers not really knowing the audio quality of a speaker, a phone, a TV, a streaming service, a phone line or VoIP platform until they use it in practice. But the first telephone call was made in 1876 and there should be no excuses for businesses delivering communications services that are still not fit for the human ear over 147 years later.