Is there anything I can do about background noise on TV?

Ofcom is aware that the presence of sound effects and music in television programme can be a distraction or even an irritant to some viewers.

Background sounds may also reduce the intelligibility of the dialogue for viewers with a hearing loss.

At the same time, for many other viewers, sound effects and music can significantly enhance the audience’s experience of TV programmes, acting as it does to provide cues which can help programme producers to create the desired atmosphere for their programme (for example, enhancing the sense of dramatic tension or to create a light-hearted feel for a particular scene).

Ofcom does not have powers under the Communications Act to set specific rules on the presence of background sounds on TV in the UK.

Sound effects and music play an important role in TV productions both in the UK and worldwide and production decisions such as this rest with the producers and broadcasters.

The public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV1, GMTV1, Channel 4, Five and S4C) do, however, set their own production guidelines, and we understand that these do cover the level of background sound in many cases. You may wish to contact the broadcasters direct if you have difficulty with particular programmes.

An Ofcom research project into ‘Clean Audio’ followed a study that was commissioned by one of its predecessor bodies, the Independent Television Commission (ITC).

This showed the potential benefits of reducing the levels of background sound, and identified possible technical solutions.

Following this and Ofcom’s support of the UK Clean Audio Forum, the need for a mechanism to deliver clearer dialogue was recognised by industry.

As a result Digital Video Broadcasting standards can now support the delivery of Clean Audio and we understand that dialogue clarity is the subject of significant research by Dolby Laboratories who are currently working on a method of delivering clean audio in a bandwidth-efficient manner.

In practical terms, if you are experiencing difficulty hearing television dialogue clearly, using subtitles may help. The BBC now subtitles 100% of its output, and subtitling levels are above 90% on ITV1 and Channel 4. Ofcom sets minimum levels for subtitling, as well as for sign language and audio description, under the Code on Television Access Services.

Finally, adjusting the sound settings on the TV set itself may also help. As well as bass and treble controls, modern TV sets often have a variety of different digital sound settings, some of which may reduce or enhance the clarity of the dialogue in some cases, although much depends on the characteristics of the individual receiver.