The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol03/nr01/a04

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 3, nr. 1 (October 2012)


Svein Høier


There are good reasons to consider point of audition (POA) as a problematic term when writing about sound. This essay addresses the different challenges one meets when using the term and discusses different alternatives for future use of this terminology within the field of television sound. The motivation for rethinking the term is the analytical and descriptive problems raised when writing about recent trends in television sound in drama, sports, news, documentaries and other television genres. The argumentation refers to the flexible and creative uses of television sound today and discusses how various production examples can be better accounted for by refining the term point of audition. All in all, four categories of point of audition are suggested for analysis: observational, active, individual and personal POAs.


Point of audition (POA) has been referred to as a problematic term for many scholars writing on film sound, the field from which this concept originates. In the context of film sound, for instance, Rick Altman has described POA as “a clumsy term, whose only merit is to recall unfailingly the ‘point-of-view’ shot” (Altman 1992: 60). Birger Langkjær has also described the use of this term as often lacking both logic and relevance, and refers – like other scholars – to the fact that the term has a problematic dependence on the visuals and visually-oriented theory (Langkjær 2000: 135). This kind of skepticism towards the term is understandable, also because POA is a complex phenomenon that is hard to describe when it comes to both film sound and TV sound. For one, it is often difficult to talk about one specific “point” of audition because in most cases many different and parallel sound elements are being experienced simultaneously. Michel Chion pointed this out in his 1994 book on film sound, Audiovision: Sound on Screen, which suggests that this “point” should be understood as a space or zone (Chion 1994: 90).

The term is also used in two different ways in the existing literature on film sound, as explained by Anahid Kassabian in her article “Rethinking Point of Audition in The Cell” (Kassabian 2008). Kassabian and Chion both explain the difference as follows: POA can, on the one hand, refer to situations where the audience shares the subjective aural experience of a character, a category that therefore can be called subjective POA – referring to the inner worlds of characters. On the other hand, POA is also used in a spatial sense, referring to the (more objective) spatial position the audience will “hear from” within the diegetic world that is presented, a second meaning that can be clarified by referring to it as spatial POA. Scholars include these two meanings in different ways when they discuss POA in film sound. In the early 1990s, Altman described POA as only linked to subjectivity (Altman 1992), a description shared by others at that time, like James Lastra (Lastra 1992: 76). This understanding of the term has continued among many scholars and can also be recognized in articles published more recently, like Rebecca Coyle’s “Point of Audition: Sound and Music in Cloverfield” (Coyle 2010). However, Chion employs both of the two meanings of the term, as does Kassabian (Kassabian 2008), Sonnenschein (Sonnenschein 2001: 163) and others. The double meaning is also adopted in this discussion, when focusing on television sound and discussing the possible future use of the term in this field of study. It will be suggested here to divide the two categories that traditionally have been referred to when writing about film sound – the spatial and the subjective meaning – into new categories, resulting in the four proposed categories of POA when discussing television sound.

Arnt Maasø has discussed how sound perspectives in television over time have been closing in, a shift that became more noticeable from the 1980s onwards with the adoption of radio microphones (Maasø 2008: 48). Television sound design, too, has become increasingly ambitious, especially for the “high end” fictional series aired by HBO and others. These series often present the inner soundscape of a character, and the sound designers of such series have also adapted other techniques and aesthetics that previously featured almost exclusively in film soundtracks. All in all, one can say that television sound has been continuously developing when it comes to aspects that influence both spatial and subjective POAs, and it seems especially relevant to investigate how television sound has been “closing in” on both actions and individuals when it comes to sound perspectives. New discussions about POA can contribute to an understanding of changes in sound perspectives in television, with attention to variations in narrative perspectives and narrative modes in both fictional and non-fictional programming.

The decision to adopt terminology from the neighbouring field of film sound obviously involves challenges. But it may also prove to be fruitful, as Jeremy G. Butler writes: “Although there are critical differences between sound for TV and sound for theatrical film, the study of cinema sound can still provide insights into television” (Butler 2007: 268). The hope of presenting such insights motivates a rethinking of the terminology at hand and a discussion of the relevance of POA for the study of television sound.

Theoretically, this article relies on film and television sound studies, but it also includes some references to production handbooks and literature on narrative theory and visualization in film. This use of supplementary literature is both relevant and necessary due to the limited amount of research available on television sound and POA. The inclusion of practical handbooks also makes it possible to discuss how POA is connected to production standards and common technical considerations. In addition, this essay will focus on how audiences experience sounds that are located within the diegetic world presented, and non-diegetic sound elements like music and voice-overs will therefore be excluded from the discussion. Diegetic voice-overs will not be discussed either, although reference will be made to the subjective inner thoughts of a character. This differentiation involves a separation of explicit voice-over narration versus implicit and subjective inner voices. Both aspects can regularly be experienced with television sound, although I will primarily focus on the latter.

Terminology for Describing Spatial Perspectives

The experimental documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) provides a useful introductory example. This production presents a soccer game by exclusively following the football player Zinedine Zidane using multiple cameras with different focal lengths, angles and framing. Even though all the cameras remain outside the playing field, the soundtrack is not limited to such a distant perspective. In some parts of the film, the soundtrack presents the game aurally from within the playing field, and the audience can experience a closeness to Zidane and hear how he runs, breathes, handles the ball and more. In other parts of this documentary the audience experiences the game in the more traditional manner associated with microphones placed outside the playing field – this results in the far more common listening experience of a televised soccer game. This experimental documentary thereby demonstrates two different spatial perspectives by mixing recorded sounds with post-synchronized sounds. These two perspectives are again linked either to an observational or a (more) participatory experience. The trailer of the movie gives an idea of how these two perspectives manifest themselves in the production:

Focalization and related terminology can be a relevant starting point when discussing these differences in spatial perspectives, and the following discussion will build on four (of the eight) levels of narration presented in Edward Branigan’s Narrative Comprehension and Film (Branigan 1992: 87). What Branigan describes as “nonfocalized narration” corresponds to a more observational perspective, while an “external focalizer” corresponds to a more participatory perspective, and these two categories are relevant when discussing variation in spatial POA. The nonfocalized narration can be said to involve a perspective that is similar to an imaginary audience that observes events from a distance. External focalizations, on the other hand, allow an audience to experience what a character experiences from his or her perspective, but does not involve a situation where the audience shares an experience from the unique spatial point where the character is placed. Branigan uses the visual phenomenon of “eye line match” as an example of external focalization, being a narrative stance identified with a character, but not transmitted from the character’s unique placement in the diegetic world that is presented.

It should be noted, even if very briefly here, that there are both compatible and incompatible theoretical models when it comes to Branigan’s levels of narration, and that especially the level that Branigan describes as a “non-focalized narration” has been questioned by some scholars. Mieke Bal, for instance, is one of the scholars who has drawn attention to this incompatibility (Bal 2009: 178). Branigan’s categorization is, however, regarded by many scholars as very relevant when discussing film narratology, and remains useful for this discussion.

Returning to sound and spatial POA, Branigan’s non-focalized narration will correspond to a more observational POA, while external focalization will have similarities to a spatial listening place that is linked to a character’s experience, but is not experienced as purely subjective. In the experimental documentary about Zidane, this will again correspond to how an audience may experience the situation from the stands or be linked with the perspective of a soccer player on the field, while still not sharing the experience of Zidane or any other specific soccer player on the field. In the following, these two categories of spatial POA will be referred to as observational POA and active POA when it comes to sound perspectives.

Scholars like Theo van Leeuwen and Arnt Maasø have discussed the connections – and lack of connections – between sound perspectives and social distance by drawing on the work of Edward Hall (van Leeuwen 1999; Maasø 2008). These two works can also gain relevance when discussing terminology like spatial POA, especially in the case of productions where voices are the dominant element, such as televised debates, talk shows and other studio productions. In his article “The Proxemics of the Mediated Voice - An Analytical Framework for Understanding Sound Space in Mediated Talk,” Maasø distinguishes between six proxemic zones of such mediated voices: intimate, personal, social (near), social (far), public (near) and public (far). These six categories can, in turn, be characterized according to three main aspects: vocal distance, microphone perspective and intended earshot, the latter being connected to volume and explained as being “the primary earshot signaled by the volume of the voice” (Maasø 2008: 41).

The two spatial categories that are suggested in this case – observational and active – are broad categories compared to the six proxemic zones from Maasø and the five categories developed by van Leeuwen (van Leeuwen 1999: 30). But one of the advantages of discussing only two categories of spatial POA is that they are identifiable and commonly can be recognized as distinct categories. When trying to find a common ground for analyzing and describing variations in POAs, a case can be made for the importance of keeping the number of categories to a minimum. Furthermore, it is useful to link the categories public (far), public (near) and social (far) to the term observational POA, while social (near), intimate and personal can be said to correspond to an active POA. The following will adopt these two categories of spatial POA, and continue with a discussion of two categories of subjective POA.

Terminology for Describing Subjective Perspectives

The soundtrack in the experimental documentary about Zidane not only portrays this soccer player’s outer world, but also tries to engage the audience by portraying the inner world of Zidane during the game. This is done by shifting between not only different spatial sound perspectives, but also by presenting various subjective sounds. In some parts of the movie the audience can hear how Zidane experiences his surroundings in the arena, and how the cheering, singing and drumming has turned into just muffled sounds or simply noise. In other parts, the filmmaker takes the audience even further into the mind of Zidane and presents that which seems to be Zidane’s sound associations during the game. One example of this is a scene where the sound of Zidane’s co-players are replaced by sounds of children playing soccer at a playground, thereby alluding to how Zidane recollects his own childhood experiences of playing soccer.

Two of Branigan’s eight levels of narration can also function as a starting point for discussing these kinds of subjective perspectives, namely the two categories of “internal focalization,” which are called “internal focalization (surface)” and “internal focalization (depth).” This distinction between surface and depth can be explained as follows: surface involves a character who “filters” his or her surroundings, and can be exemplified with situations where the visual and aural elements signal a filtering by a character who is in a highly emotional state (tired, ill, drunk or under some sort of individual influence). This category of internal focalization can also refer to how a character observes and demonstrates a special interest in other characters, events or other surroundings. The deep internal focalizations, on the other hand, are connected to how audiences can gain access to a character’s deeper thoughts, memories, stream of consciousness, daydreams, hallucinations, fantasies or similar aspects of a character’s personal inner world. The difference between “surface” and “depth” is therefore connected to whether or not other characters would have access to the same experience (unfiltered) as the internal focalizer. A descriptive way to clarify these two categories when it comes to the traditional subjective meaning of POA would be to separate that which can be called individual POA and personal POA, separating the subjective filtering that happens on an individual level (surface) and situations where the audience is given access to the more personal inner life of a character (depth). These will therefore be the two suggested categories of subjective perspectives in the following.

Subjective sound can be categorized according to various types. Richard Raskin, for instance, distinguishes between five types of such sounds (Raskin 1992). One of his categories – distorted sounds – corresponds to how a character filters sound from their surroundings and how audiences share such an individual POA. The other four categories that Raskin discusses – inner voice, remembered sound, imagined sound and spoken writing – can all be said to be examples of what is here called personal POA. Raskin reminds the reader that subjective sounds are both an important and a varied toolset for audio-visual storytelling, and more techniques can also be added to the palette, such as the subjective emphasizing and discarding of sounds (and ultimately a subjective experience of silence). When it comes to POA, however, these two more broad categories are both effective and sufficient when analyzing and describing various examples of subjective perspectives.

Observational, active, individual and personal POAs are closely linked here to Branigan’s structuring of nonfocalized narration, external focalization, internal focalization (surface) and internal focalization (depth). So why not suggest terminology like “sonic internal focalization (surface)” or “nonfocalized sound” when drawing on Branigan’s terminology? Two important reasons for the argument here to split the term include the necessity to avoid the visual connotations connected to the word “focalization” and develop a terminology that is exclusively dedicated to sound perspectives when discussing programs where sound perspectives and visual perspectives can be quite divergent (which is the rule rather than the exception). The necessity for terminology that can describe various kinds of audio-visual interplay is a topic that will be returned to in a later section.

The unconventional use of sound in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait can be accounted for by splitting the two traditional meanings of the term POA into four categories, as described above. But more important than this single example is whether such variations in POAs will also manifest themselves more broadly in contemporary television productions (even if all of the four are not present in one and the same production). The following sections will therefore each investigate examples of observational, active, individual and personal POA. A number of examples will only be mentioned briefly, yet my ultimate aim is to demonstrate that the four proposed categories of POA have a broader relevance for analyzing and describing television sound today.

Observational Point of Audition

Prioritization of intelligibility has long been the dominant norm within film sound (see Altman 1992: 25; Lastra 1992: 76), and similar ambitions to reduce reverb and noise have also become the dominant mindset within television sound design. Newer handbooks on film and TV production therefore emphasize that microphones should be held or placed as close as possible to a sound source, at least as a general rule of thumb (see Aronson 2006: 84). This practice results in the best possible ratios between direct and reflected sound, and also a better technical ratio between wanted and unwanted sounds (signal-to-noise ratio).

Techniques that can result in an observational POA, like distant microphone placements, will therefore often be the second choice when producing programs today – but it may still be the only realistic choice in many situations. This is the case simply because microphones cannot be positioned freely in all recording situations, such as news coverage of accidents, riots, emergencies and similar critical situations. News from stations like CNN and BBC can therefore be said to exemplify observational POAs almost every day, especially when the situations that are covered are difficult to control or influence when it comes to sound. On the other hand, when the situation allows for a freer positioning of microphones, the “as close as you can get” positioning of microphones will often be the advised solution in contemporary production handbooks.

There are a number of programs that similarly include recordings that have been performed outside a professionally controlled setting, which often results in an observational POA. Various broadcasters have used video surveillance footage and amateur recordings produced with mobile phones and police cameras as raw materials for news and Reality TV series. Some documentary series are similarly based on amateur recordings, such as personally recorded video diaries. Series like World's Wildest Police Videos (Stojanovich 2012) and Diary (Ignjatovic 2000) can be relevant examples of such use of non-professional footage, and these kinds of productions often result in an observational POA.

Some traditional ways of producing documentaries can also result in an observational POA, especially documentaries that Bill Nichols would describe as characterized by an observational mode, where “we look on social actors who go about their lives as if the camera was not present” (Nichols 2010: 150). Some reality series also have similar production goals of being a “fly on the wall” while recording, such as when the camera follows a person in unpredictable interactions with others. The same POA may also be chosen when producers try to simulate the sound qualities of observational documentaries in “mockumentaries.” The comedy series The Office (Gervais & Merchant 2001) is one example, for instance, where the producers experimented with documentary style elements.

Most sports programs involve situations where microphones must be placed at a distance so they do not interfere with what unfolds in the competition. Sports programs will often use a large number of microphones to present the events that take place (in combination with commentaries), but these microphones are often placed at some distance. The Olympic channel on YouTube gives a number of examples of this sound aesthetic from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. When listening to the taekwondo example, for instance, the diegetic sounds are presented as rather distant and represent an observational POA:

The ambition to capture more “close-up sounds” in sports has, however, lead to the practice of “sweetening” the sound by mixing pre-recorded sounds together with live recordings. The POA can be shifted into active POA by using a sampler and keyboard to trigger different sounds, synchronized with the visual movements, which is produced live and on the spot. The following video from the Norwegian broadcaster NRK gives an impression of how sounds are added for a ski jump competition. The sound technician has clearly decided to “sweeten” the sound by adding sounds of ski jumpers taking off and landing, and adding noise from the audience, bells, a dog barking and more:

While most sports programs falls under the category of observational POA, the practice of “sweetening” live sports by adding sounds will result in what can be described as a “close-up sound” similar to what was achieved using post-synchronized sounds in the experimental documentary about Zidane discussed above. In both cases the techniques can be said to represent a more ambitious way of producing a soundtrack for sports, closing in on actions and individuals. This also represents a shift towards active POAs, which will be discussed in the next section.

Active Point of Audition

In television sound, observational POA is often associated with the position of a bystander who experiences an event – and likewise often to production situations where the sound recording is undertaken with limited access. Active POA, on the other hand, is linked to a more (illusive) participating position and often involves recording situations that are more controlled. Active POA has traditionally been achieved by the use of visible microphones – either in the hands of a reporter, placed on stands, desks or another fixed position – and by active booming of a microphone on a pole placed just outside the camera frame. Subsequent advances in miniature microphones (lavalier) and wireless technology have enabled further developments towards close-up sound in television productions, and today we also experience a newer ultra-close microphone positioning by the use of miniature headset mikes. The distance from a person’s mouth to a headset microphone can be only an inch or so, which results in an ultra-close sound perspective.

Today, generally speaking, active POA is present in a wide range of television genres, including live broadcasts, “live on tape” productions and edited programs. Studio productions are typically controlled situations, often leading to the use of miniature microphones to achieve closeness to people and particular settings. Talk shows, televised debates, game shows, morning shows and other voice-centered studio productions can of course include some variation in sound perspective during the program, but the sound in such productions can be generalized as very often resulting in an active POA. Real Time with Bill Maher presented by HBO (Grant 2003) and The Graham Norton Show presented by BBC America (Smith 2011) are, for instance, examples of active POA.

Active POA can also be experienced in staged Reality TV series and in staged interviews. In reality TV series the visual strategies will often involve the use of multiple cameras to cover what are only partly predictable and controllable events. Strategic placement of miniature microphones, often combined with active use of boom microphones, can secure closeness to conversations and events in such programs. This promotional clip from Masterchef (US) (Roddam 2010) functions as an example of active POA when it comes to diegetic sounds:

A television interview will often be experienced from a POA that can be said to be in line with the reporter or the interviewer, and will therefore often result in an active POA. Today’s version of the long-lived 60 minutes (Hewitt 1968) offers a relevant example of production techniques where an active POA is the dominating sound perspective.

When it comes to portraying the external world surrounding characters in contemporary fictional series, the dominant techniques will likewise result in an active POA. But such series, at times, also give the audience access to a character’s subjective experiences through the use of subjective sounds. In “high end” fictional series there appears to be a growing trend to present the inner life of a character in different ways, and the following two sections will give a number of examples that illustrate individual and personal POAs.

Individual Point of Audition

Subjective sounds are employed most often for highly emotional scenes, but they can also be used in both unusual and provocative ways, as Mark Kerins points out (Kerins 2010: 181). Individual POAs can, together with personal POAs, give the audience not only participatory access to a situation, but also direct access to a specific character’s experiences, thoughts, feelings and so on. This often involves a shift towards the use of what Chion calls “rendered sounds” (Chion 1994: 109), which can be explained as exaggerated – but also emotionally relevant – sounds.

Individual POA is often connected to a situation where a character experiences a special physical or psychological situation (or condition). The first episode of the series Breaking Bad (Vince 2008) offers several examples of this category. When a doctor first tells the main character, Walter White, that he has cancer, Walter’s experience of the doctor’s voice turns into a reverberant and distant babbling, which is disturbed by a loud ringing in his ears. A similar effect is also employed in a later scene in the same episode, when Walter is “falling apart” in the car wash where he works. In this episode, the individual POA is connected to both emotional and physical influences on the character, and the audience is given access to Walter’s individual experience. In a very different series, John Adams (Hooper 2008), there is a similar case where the protagonist is lying in bed with a high fever at the end of the third episode. In this scene, Adams experiences his surroundings as distorted and blurred – something that is marked both visually and sonically – and his physical and psychological state are shared with the audience. This way of portraying physical and psychological states can also be relevant in non-fiction programs, such as when presenting how a person experiences mental illness by adding subjective sounds that will result in an individual POA.

An individual POA is, likewise, often connected to subjective sounds used in emotionally challenging situations, and an illustrative example can be found in the beginning of part five of Band of Brothers (Robinson et al. 2001). In this scene the viewer watches a character run for his life without seeing the character’s face until he stops running. In this case the sound design allows for the amplification of some sounds (breathing and running) over the sounds of war and other ambient sounds. These subjective sounds are paired with very chaotic camera movements, which together signal a dramatic situation and a panicked state of mind. The first (crowded) part of the trailer for the series Boardwalk Empire offers a similar example of how an individual state of mind can be portrayed with a sound design that will typically be experienced as an individual POA:

More conventional examples of individual POAs are scenes where the audience listens to an acousmatic telephone voice from the same sound perspective as that of the character holding the phone. A series like The Wire (Simon 2002) presents numerous examples of such acousmatic voices. Individual POAs can thus be said to be part of the traditional sound palette for presenting a telephone conversation, but today this category of POA will often be linked to more ambitious sound designers, who provide access to a character’s unique experience. This ambition within sound design can also be established for personal POA, which is the next category that will be discussed.

Personal Point of Audition

Both individual POA and personal POA are connected to subjectivity, but personal POAs probe further into the minds of characters and provide access to more personal experiences that are not shared with other characters. One example is spoken writing, a use of sound that can be relevant both in drama series and documentaries. Another example is sound memories. A trailer for the series The Newsroom exemplifies how a character’s sound memories can be used to portray job-related pressure by creating a montage that also results in a personal POA:

Flashbacks are another example of how memories can be used in television series. In part 7 of the series The Pacific (Patten, Nutter, Podeswa, Yost, Franklin & To 2010), Sgt. Basilone experiences a flashback to his wartime nightmares while hitting golf balls at a driving range. This flashback is realized both by means of sound and image. A personal POA can thus be used to connect two different historical times, like in a flashback scene, but it can also be used to bridge different universes together. This is the case in the BBC series Life on Mars (Graham, Jordan & Pharoah 2006), which revolves around Sam Tyler, a Detective Chief Inspector who, after being hit by a car in 2006, awakens to find himself in 1973. While all the action in the series takes place in 1973, the main character sometimes hears (personal) sounds that make it plausible to think that he might be in a coma in 2006. A personal POA can also be relevant when the world of the living is connected to the world of the dead, which is the case in the fifth season of House (Shore 2004), when the character House has a hallucination that Amber is present.

Subjective sounds can also be used creatively to portray different superhuman capabilities, which is evidenced by series like True Blood (Ball 2008) and Heroes (Kring 2006). Both Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood and Matt Parkman in Heroes possess the same special gift, namely the ability to hear what other people think. This ability is shared with the audience by presenting Sookie’s and Matt’s personal POAs in various scenes. A personal POA will often be paired with correspondent visual focalization, and access to a character’s inner world will often be the result of overlapping audio-visual strategies. But the audio-visual interplay will not be this straightforward in many cases, and this variation in interplay is the central topic of the next section.

The Audio-visual Interplay

Sound and image may be presented from corresponding audio-visual perspectives both when it comes to observational, active, individual and personal POAs. This is the case, for instance, when both visual and sound perspectives are observational or when an external focalization on the visual side is combined with an active POA. But rather than focusing on such situations alone, it is interesting to discuss situations where there are discrepancies between the visual and auditory perspectives. Such differences also guide the kind of terminology that is suitable for discussing visual and auditory perspectives –sound and visuals should be necessarily examined separately as well as in relation to each other when analyzing and describing variations in audio-visual interplay.

Sports programs can typically be examples of such audio-visual “dissonance.” Such programs can be very inventive when it comes to visuals by using motorized cameras on rails, wires, cranes, helicopters, snowmobiles and steady cams together with slow motion and replays with multi-angled recordings. Such programming often involves very active shifts between multiple camera positions and different angles, while the POA may remain much more static and tend to be observational in the same situations (that is, unless live “audio sweetening” or post-synchronized sounds are used to present more “close-up sounds”). Sports programs may, therefore, offer examples where the sound perspective is more observational, while the visuals move more freely between the observational and the more active and participatory. This can be the opposite in voice-centred studio productions, which often present a close sonic perspective on voices – often combined only with distant sounds from the audience, like clapping, laughter and other sounds – and again paired with visuals that move relatively freely between different camera positions and framings – some of which are also positioned at a relatively long distance. There are, of course, important reasons why visual jumps in space very seldom are paired with similar jumps in acoustic presentation; the main reason being the significant role played by the soundtrack in providing a sense of continuity in most television productions. One interesting point, however, is that such continuity can be established by presenting both observational or active POA, as in the examples of sports programs and studio productions mentioned here.

When it comes to individual and personal POAs, these forms are usually paired with explicit visual indications of subjectivity, such as internal focalizations, but sometimes also external focalizations. Two techniques that are typically used are tracking shots (that close in on a character and thereby signal a gradual shift towards individual or personal POA), or the use of more plain close-ups (that signal a movement toward the subjective). Eyes that open or close can also function as cues – for instance to signal a flashback in the trailer for Boardwalk Empire cited above. Personal POA, likewise, can also be interpreted on the basis of more contextual cues. The act of writing or reading can, when paired with an inner voice, be regarded as belonging to the inner sound world of a character that performs the reading or writing – even if the visuals are presented rather observationally. A personal POA, too, can be interpreted when a character returns to her childhood home, whereby the audience hears an inner world of sounds that seem related to the past – even if the visuals belong to the category of external focalization. The interpretation of both individual and personal POA would, of course, be far more obvious when such sounds are combined with internal focalization on the part of the visuals.

These kinds of differences in visual and aural perspectives are important when discussing terms, whether POA or other related visual terminology. Such variations provide a rationale to argue that a more holistic terminology that describes both visual and sonic perspectives at the same time is not the best choice. The four categories of POA that are suggested here should therefore be combined with corresponding categories that describe visual perspectives, as I have chosen to do above, when engaging with Branigan’s levels of narration. This double set of terminology is important in order to account for different examples of audio-visual interplay, even when the sounds and visuals represent very different perspectives.


All in all, the present discussion has established a number of insights on how television sound design has been “closing in” on both situations and individuals over time, both in a spatial and in a subjective sense. New production practices with miniature microphones, the “sweetening” of live sound in sports, and examples of more ambitious sound design that gives access to a character’s inner worlds are all indications of such changes. These new categories of POA can thus better describe historical changes and contemporary developments when it comes to the use of sound perspectives in a wide range of television programs.

These categories are similar to visually-oriented concepts and terminology, which present significant challenges when rethinking the concept of POA. For one, while a visual (static) shot represents a more specific, singular point by the use of framing and a relatively defined camera distance, a POA can be the result of multiple parallel microphone perspectives and multiple layers of sound. When discussing POAs one should therefore always note that what is actually presented is – as Chion points out – a zone or a space (Chion 1994: 90).

This essay has asserted the advantages gained by an engagement with visually-oriented concepts and terminology. The categories presented by Branigan are, for instance, well-known and used by numerous scholars. By operating with corresponding (but separate) categories for visual perspectives and sound perspectives, such correspondences also make it possible to describe how variations in audio-visual interplay work in different productions. This essay has provided a number of examples where the visual and aural presentations unite in corresponding perspectives, but also examples where the two perspectives depart from each other. This variation in audio-visual interplay demands a separate terminology for sounds and visuals, as discussed above.

The four categories described by Branigan have proven to be both effective and sufficient when it comes to describing spatial and subjective perspectives, and one can hope that the redefinition of POA into four categories can help to make this term less problematic and more relevant for television sound. Certainly, it can be fruitful to discuss sound perspectives with more detailed categories, but a categorization of POA should also be based on variations that are identifiable for scholars, students and practitioners. The various examples in this essay have shown how different points of audition can be identified and the relevance of observational, active, individual and personal points of audition in contemporary television sound.


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Svein Høier is Associate Professor of Media Technology in the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He has a background in broadcasting and teaches courses in film and video production, including sound design. His essays have appeared in numerous Scandinavian journals such as Mediekultur and Norsk Medietidsskrift.