How the BBC Evaluates the Use of AI in Dubbing and Captioning

BBC AI for Dubbing

On November 29, 2023, SlatorCon Remote attendees were treated to a presentation by  Vanessa Lecomte, localization operations manager at BBC Studios. Lecomte is in charge of high-end media entertainment content in over 40 languages and shared her insights on the limitations of AI-enabled innovations in subtitling and dubbing, which the BBC has not deployed and is only evaluating.

Lecomte first gave attendees background information on BBC Studios, describing it as “Britain’s most awarded production company, the UK’s largest distributor of British content, and the home to the widest read English language news website in the world.” Her division localizes content for BBC branded channels and streaming, as well as local customers, among others. 

As she reflected on the fact that the volume of content localized by her team has never been higher, Lecomte emphasized the need for awareness of both the risks and the potential for more effectiveness and efficiency with AI. She also explained that her focus was on understanding what is available for long-form media localization and experimenting with the different solutions to see what works.

The localization executive said that “BBC is a brand associated with quality and our audience cares deeply” and described how the benefits that AI has in localization, including synthetic voices must match BBC’s quality standards at a minimum. The main question, she continued, was whether AI can improve current processes, increase speed to market, and reduce costs.

To see where AI could make good on its potential, several tests were conducted, one of which consisted of generating English captions from English audio, using text-to-speech technologies. That particular test was conducted on five natural history BBC programs, requesting English captions from select providers using Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) technology. 

One test was a fully automated output available in just minutes, and the other one was a version post-edited by an expert that took several days. The captions were then reviewed and the fully automated captions did not meet quality standards. There were also formatting and layout issues, including unreadable and incorrectly broken-up captions.

In the end, the ASR and human intervention tests validated the latter along with what Lecomte called “proper guidance during the setup process.” This model can produce quality captions faster and at reduced costs.

On AI and Dubbing

Addressing AI in dubbing, Lecomte described dubbing as a “time-consuming and expensive process involving many technical and creative talents.” She said her division is exploring the capabilities of AI dubbing technology to try and deliver more content, faster, and still meet quality standards, adding that this should be done acting responsibly in regards to talent rights.

An example of the BBC Studios experimentation with synthetic voices was a German voice-over dubbing test using AI-generated voices from different companies, and comparing them to existing human voice-over recordings. The synthetic voice, explained Lecomte, has a much wider range of human expressions and fits quite well with the image, but human intervention is still necessary at every step. Attendees heard the samples and were asked to choose the one that sounded human. Most chose one of the synthetic voices.

To Lecomte, the tests helped the division realize that understanding the technology and the process is key to finding the best solution among the many currently on offer. In her opinion, many tests are needed to determine what works and what doesn’t, and stakeholders must keep learning and adapting as the technology continues to evolve fast, adding that “what doesn’t work today might work tomorrow.”

Lecomte advised attendees to “Balance opportunities against the risk. These technologies offer the potential to speed up the process, which in turn enables you to localize more content, reach new markets, but it shouldn’t be done to the detriment of quality or of a well-respected industry. So do the right thing and commit to a thoughtful localization strategy.”

For those who missed SlatorCon Remote November 2023 in real-time, recordings will be available via Slator’s Pro and Enterprise plans in due course.