The silent shift: navigating the new streaming soundscape

In the beginning, there was silence. During the first three decades of cinema, text was the only way to convey speech, and many celebrated stars of the silent era faded away during the transition to sound. Almost a century after the shift from text to sound as the primary medium for movie dialogue, we are witnessing a silent shift of balance in the opposite direction. The driver of this trend isn’t solely the new habit of watching movies on mute in noisy surroundings. Even the sound quality itself seems to be getting worse.

Recent data confirms that public viewing is the new normal. A 2022 survey, which questioned over 1,260 Americans, found that 57% of all respondents and 74% of Gen Z watch content in public settings. A startling 55% of respondents also noted that they find it more difficult to hear dialogue in shows and movies compared to the past.

Why is that? And what does it mean for TV channels and streaming services striving to make sure their content is accessible and engaging for their audience?

It turns out there are a number of reasons behind this trend, linked to how movies and shows are produced and consumed. In some cases, unclear dialogue may result from a director’s creative choice. A recent example is Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful film ‘Oppenheimer’ which has faced complaints about the difficulty of understanding the dialogue against the background sounds. This arises from Nolan’s refusal to re-record voices in post-production, as he prefers capturing the performance in the moment, “an artistic choice that some people disagree with, and that’s their right”, Nolan explained in Variety.

Another reason is related to technology and the increasingly advanced sound systems in theatres.

As Brian X. Chen explains in a recent NY Times article, the issue is quite complex. In major film productions, audio levels are fine-tuned for powerful theater speakers capable of delivering a wide range of sounds, from dialogue to loud effects. However, when the same content is streamed through devices like TVs or smartphones, the audio is compressed for much smaller speakers. In addition, modern slim TVs often hide speakers for a sleek look, which can negatively affect sound quality by directing audio away from viewers.

Streaming apps add further complications. Unlike regular broadcast TV, they don’t follow strict rules about how loud sounds can be. This leads to inconsistent volume levels between different apps and even different shows within the same app. So, switching between different streaming apps or programs might require frequent adjustments to the volume settings to ensure clear dialogue audibility.

As Chen points out, some of the solutions emerging on the consumer side include employing external speakers and app-based speech enhancements. “And if all else fails, of course, there are subtitles.”

Indeed, the previously cited study also reveals that about 50% of Americans now watch content with subtitles most of the time, and about 62% use subtitles more frequently on streaming services than on regular TV.

However, subtitles come with their own set of challenges. While OTT delivery across multiple screens increases the need for subtitles, they also add complexity to their delivery and quality, with the array of different resolutions and formats that need to be supported. Traditional image-based subtitles do not work very well since they are hard to adapt to the different screen formats. The solution to that is OCR, Optical Character Recognition, which enables instant transcoding of image-based subtitles to text that can be adapted to different devices.

The latest development in subtitling is Automatic Speech Recognition, ASR. This technology has advanced to the extent that we can instantly translate speech into subtitles during live events. This is an important step both for content accessibility and audience engagement. 

Subtitles have traditionally played a vital role in translation and assisting the hard of hearing. As we have seen, they are now dramatically gaining importance in the new streaming soundscape, especially among the audiences that are the hardest to reach: the younger viewers, particularly Gen Z.

To learn more about subtitling, and other ways to keep the attention of this hard-to-reach audience, visit us at NAB Show 2024 in Las Vegas on April 14-17, and watch our latest ASR subtitling demo in action. Book a meeting here.

By Johan Bolin

CEBO - Content, Broadcast and MVDP, of Agile Content