Saturday, September 25, 2010

Another Blast

At a recent meeting of broadcast engineers in our part of Ohio, the conversation at one point turned to the issue of wild audio levels on television. I've commented before on this site about the problem of audio spikes: those sudden surges of loudness that blast your TV usually when programming cuts to commercials. The problem has always existed to some degree, but has been made worse with the advent of digital television and its higher dynamic range. The broadcasting industry is feeling pressure not only from viewers but from congress, believe it or not, to bring these audio spikes under control. Believe me, we'd love to. But nobody seems to know how.

The obvious cure would be for TV stations to employ the same kind of balls to the wall audio processing many radio stations use. Your neighborhood radio station - especially the AM stations who have a hard enough time being heard - route the audio through a series of devices that act as an automatic volume control with the end result being you don't have to keep juking the volume knob up and down to hear the radio over the road. (Chances are your car sound system has its own auto volume control that adjusts based on your speed or, on more sophisticated systems, ambient cabin noise.) That is unless you're listening to NPR, who feels adding such artifacts to their product would be an insult to the audience, so trying to hear All Things Considered over the traffic noise requires listeners to serve as their own master control engineer.

The side effect of radio's power processing is that radio listeners rarely experience audio spikes. Problem solved.

And yet, in TV, we're still struggling to keep our viewers from getting a sonic lobotomy every time a local car dealer takes to the air.

Most TV engineers I know loathe to strap on the heavy-handed audio processing used in FM radio. Some networks want local affiliates to air their programming via an audio chain bypass. They claim that such processing adds to a feeling of bombardment for the audience - what we call audience fatigue. They have a point. Years ago, many TV stations did use the same audio chain as a radio station, and I recall the side effects could be awful. Prolonged silence on a movie caused the auto gain to crank up, bringing up the background noise. Then somebody would finally talk, and it sounded like a cannon shot.

This issue still crops up from time to time. The worst show on television - for more than one reason - is Poker After Dark. A bunch of guys sit at a table and stare at their cards... for ten frickin' minutes at a time. Nobody talks. The only audio content during this time is the poker chips, shrill plastic clacking, over, and over, and over, and over. And then they go to commercial. BLAST!

This reveals the root cause of much of television's difficulty in controlling volume spikes. In radio, programmers attempt to keep the medium engaged in constant activity. (Except for NPR, of course. Your tax deductible contribution pays for a lot of dead air.) Silence is not golden; it's death. Consistency is key. Keep the meters moving. In television, however, audio often serves to underscore the visual. It's considered perfectly acceptable for actors, particularly in dramas, to stare at each other just long enough for the master control room's silence alarm to beep.

Advertising agencies are also well aware of the inconsistencies of TV sound, and use it to their advantage. Consider this scenario: an episode of Law & Order goes to commercial. You get up to go to the kitchen for a snack. You're not watching, but your ear is still following the TV audio, but not really listening, just hearing the "buzz" of activity. Now, about a minute into the break, a clever spot comes on where the actors just stare into space. No sound. No sound. No sound. And then at about 15-20 seconds into the 30 second spot, the one actor yells. "YES! I WIN!" Our two actors were watching two snails as they creep towards a finish line. Snail racing. It's like waiting for your email on Brand X's broadband internet service. Clever. I should be a copywriter.

Think about how the viewer responds.

We've had a consistent buzz of audio activity over several minutes. Your ear has grown accustomed to it the same way you might grow accustomed to the hum of the fan in your computer... until there's a power failure. The silence is deafening.

The sudden silence gets the viewer's attention. Something's wrong. Did the TV station go off the air? Is there a problem? I gotta look.

And you look... just in time for the punchline and the commercial's message. GET CRAPCOR HI-SPEED INTERNET.

Meanwhile, for viewers just sitting there, and for master control who just woke up and reached for the switcher just in time for "I WIN!" to blast him to the edge of losing bladder control, this whole commercial has been nothing but an annoying exercise in lame comedy being used as a conveyance for another overexposed product or service I have no interest in. And this happens at least once a half-hour, for all of prime time and well into the late night lineup, every night, for usually two or three weeks.

And every time it airs, the station transmits another 30 decibel audio spike that could get us in trouble with the FCC.

Since it's highly unlikely that the FCC will tell content producers to watch the audio, or send a reprimand to the agency that produced that Mountain Dew spot where guys whisper for 15 seconds and then a woman emits a 30 decibel spiking eagle screech (oh yeah, that doesn't get old after four hours) broadcasters have little recourse but to use whatever means available to clamp down on the wild volume surges. Don't be surprised if your local TV stations start sounding like ROCK 96.3.

It's either that or master control operators start wearing Depends.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This Is Not A Test...

The big hullabaloo last week among broadcast engineers was about a radio commercial that was setting off the Emergency Alert System. To be more accurate, it triggered certain brands of decoders at some stations, which lead to confusion and concern about FCC regulations. Here's the rule as stated by the FCC: (highlight added)

Section 11.45 Prohibition of false or deceptive EAS transmissions.
No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS. Broadcast station licensees
should also refer to Section 73.1217 of this chapt

Back in 1938 Orson Wells had the good s
ense to preface "War of the Worlds" with a disclaimer. The problem was many listeners tuned in late and didn't hear it. The FCC has been kinda touchy about triggering panic ever since.

OK. That seems pretty clear; don't imitate the EAS. What's so hard about following that rule?
The problem crops up when an advertiser, in this case BP/Arco, who isn't exactly known for their good judgment these days, tells their ad agency, "We want to sound like an emergency so people will respond. Make fun of the EAS. DO IT! Or we'll find another agency who will." So, the agency's radio producer finds actual EAS data bursts, apparently from a station in Tampa based on location codes, frequency shifted them (sped them up) and talked over them.

It shoulda worked. Problem is some brands of EAS decoders can still read the data bursts in spite of the distortions added, and that causes those stations to log an "unknown event." And that causes funky log entries for the FCC to read when that station gets inspected. Remember that rule posted above; this ain't supposed to happen. Phones ring. Tempers flare.

The FCC was notified, but an official statement has yet to be made. Most in the business don't expect much more than some finger wagging and a reminder to station managers that they are ultimately responsible if something illegal airs on their stations. Problem with that is station managers aren't very likely to tell an advertiser "Your commercial will get us fined. We won't air it." Much like the way the illegal use of copyright protected music in commercials is winked at, managers are more likely to tell sales reps "Do it until we're told to stop, if we get caught at all."

After hearing from various people with scary titles behind their names, BP/Arco's agency Ogilvy and Mather released an alternative spot sans violation that could be run in place of the original. If you care to hear the offending spot, listen here. (Opens a player.)

At the end of the day, it's an infantile radio commercial that only caused problems for several radio and TV stations unfortunate to have installed an inferior brand of EAS equipment not capable of filtering altered codes. We did not accidentally declare war on anybody, and nobody in the listening public was greatly inconvenienced with the exception of, I'm certain, a few misguided persons incapable of discerning an authentic emergency message from a lame attempt at comedy most likely written by a college intern. Radio commercials are, by and large, not produced to engage the emergency management community, first responders, or anyone with an education beyond the ninth grade. They are produced for the stupid. This one clearly hit the bullseye.