Thursday, November 12, 2009

SOUND OFF!




Since members of the House of Representatives are now reluctant to discuss health care reform due to the fact that many of them have discovered a severe allergic reaction to tar and feathers at town hall meetings, they have moved on to more life-changing legislation. According to the Broadcast Rules Service, Report #138, a House subcommittee has approved a bill (H.R. 1084) to "prohibit television commercials from being louder than the programming surrounding them." The bill is sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who wants you to forget I even mentioned health care reform.

At this point I'm sure you are thinking the same thing I'm thinking... Thanks, Anna, for taking precious time away from dealing with California's fiscal disaster, wildfires, stuff like that, and staying on top of this loud TV commercial thing. The bill is called - I swear to God I'm not making this up - the "Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act." That's right. It's the CALM Act.

Apparently, Ms. Eshoo has been blasted out her slumber one too many times while watching Grey's Anatomy and wants broadcasters to set the volume so that everything is at the same level. OK. Good luck with that.

Sudden changes is audio levels, aka volume spikes, blasting, or "WTF?'s" have been a concern since the early days of television. Back the 1950's viewers complained of commercials being louder than the shows... a tough point to prove since in those days most TV shows embedded the advertiser's message within the show itself and featured prominent product placement. (Zoinks. What a primitive approach to marketing. I'm glad we've progressed since then.) There have been conspiracy theories on and off throughout the years, until today when the problem seems to have reached epidemic proportions.

The real culprit is the conversion to digital TV and something called dynamic range - the amount of audio volume the TV transmission can carry from silence to the loudest sound. Analog TV couldn't reproduce a wide range of volume levels as digital can, thus your new digital TV is capable of being more annoying. Isn't technology fun? Many TV's today come with volume leveling options built in. Search the menu and you'll find an option that takes the blast out of commercials and changing the channel.

When asked about volume spikes your local broadcaster or cable company gives you vague or evasive answers because they honestly can't explain it. Viewers get blasted for a number of reasons varying from human error to collateral annoyance due to intentional spiking for entertainment purposes. The most common causes are:

*Producers of commercials employ a good deal of what's called compression/limiting to the sound. Compression (not to be confused with file compression) squeezes audio levels to a mean level, as opposed to a wide range of levels. As a result, operators ingesting the commercial into automated playback systems tend to set the input level higher, which is just the very thing the spot's producer wanted to happen. BLAST!

*Audio levels can vary when local stations cut away from the network to local spots. Network levels can go all over the place on the local board operator, while the local spots were ingested into the automation - you guessed it - at a higher than average level. Cable company local cut-in's can be even worse because there's no human intervention. ESPN is at one level; the local playback is louder. BLAST!

*Running movies on TV is the most extreme example of audio level du joir. Movies are produced to give the theater goer or home theater enthusiast a three-dimensional thrill ride. That's fine, except for when the commercials kick in. Let's say the movie just showed a scene between two people talking maybe two words at a time in a quiet room. The movie's sound engineer kept the levels down at maybe 30%. The next scene in the movie cuts to a sunny afternoon in Central Park. The audio level shift is sudden, but reasonable given the setting, mood, tempo, and style of the film. The director never in a million years intended for this transition to be interrupted by that weird Progressive Insurance lady. BLAST!

*Most TV shows tickle your ears with pleasing sounds, music, and voices. Many commercials are produced intentionally to be annoying, with screechy music, shouting voices, and what we call "hot mixes," meaning all of this is produced compressed to a level where every sound is fighting to be on top. You'd dive for the MUTE button no matter where the volume is set.

Many TV stations install audio leveling equipment that can minimize the abuse by reacting to changes in levels far quicker than any human. Plus, the autolevel available in newer TV's keep things steady. The need for legislation seems to be rather breathless at best; it may be another case of a politician trying to gain favor with voters by solving a pet peeve, rather than address an ugly but serious issue. Telling broadcasters to watch the meters is not necessary. Perhaps it's the politicians with nothing but pork to contribute who need a MUTE button.