I know this [M.A. web archive] page is almost ten years old, but in the last several years, since the FCC was basically dismantled by Bush and the younger Powell, all commercials are louder and with more volume than the programming. Last night with the Oscars, all ten of our guests commented -- loudly, because they have to be heard -- about how this is happening to them all the time. The kids did too. As a veteran of the business, I don't believe that it is just the recording engineers for the commercials. This is an easy one to fix, though. It just takes a lot of people complaining about it.
-- John Bollinger, via e-mail
John wins our medal as People's Hero of the Great Revolution. And, he's the first of our M.A. online commentators to make the jump to print. He's commented on a question we answered about why the TV commercials always sound louder than the programs. And since ten years in techie time equals a century in ordinary-people time, it's probably worth a revisit.
Unfortunately the situation has hardly changed at all. If anything, it's gotten more complicated. The basics are still the same as they were ten years ago. The law limits the volume of an audio transmission by a TV broadcaster -- that is, the power level (modulation) used by their transmitter to wing their programming into your house. The audio signal moving from, say, one of those news trucks to the station's transmitter goes through several steps at the TV station, each with its own limiters and compressors designed to keep the audio signal within legal limits by the time it's transmitted. Commercials (and some selected programming -- comedies louder than dramas) can bypass this with some audio sleight-of-hand with signal compression. Our last line of defense should be the broadcast, cable, or satellite service transmitting the signal to us, but apparently that's easier said than done.
This next part is worth quoting. From the director of engineering at a local TV station: "Researchers have found that what people are usually talking about when they complain about audio levels is the big difference in aural density and just annoying content. Cal Worthington and that trailer about the latest thriller movie, when viewed on an audio scope, can have exactly the same peak voltage as a calm, vocal-only interview, but you hear it as louder because it's dense and complex, filled with irritating mid-high-frequency material and layered with music and booming and heavily compressed speech. The dilemma for broadcasters is how to maintain the original dynamic range so that a pin drop sounds like a pin drop while allowing a crescendo to sound like a crescendo, all the while not irritating people with commercials meant by their creators to be loud."
Yes, Dorothy, sneaky commercial producers know that a compressed signal carrying a blast of dense, high-frequency sound will get our attention. When the Oscar programming switched to the commercials, did everyone start talking? Mocking the presenters? Making catty remarks about their clothes? Well, advertisers who've paid three trillion dollars for a 30-second spot can't have that. You must pay attention to them! And they know how to get you to do it. The only other thing that seems to attract the attention of TV viewers is prolonged silence, also used occasionally by advertisers to get us to look up from whatever's distracting us.
New digital channels have complicated matters and might account for the increase in complaints to the FCC about "loud" TV commercials. Again we quote, "Typically these stations have computers that simply switch between sources [programming to commercials, back to programming] without regard to audio levels.... Usually, because the commercials have been dubbed carefully [at the station], all comes out okay. Sometimes, though, levels don't match well, and the [master control] operator [at the TV station] may or may not even have control of those audio levels to make a quick adjustment. Sometimes that operator is controlling the commercial insertions of 2 or 4 or, in the case of cable systems, 30 or 40 channels at a time. Do you think he or she is going to adjust the audio level on each one? HA!"
Ha! indeed. So, legally speaking, the peak level of program content is no higher than the peak level of the commercials, though commercials might sustain that peak for 10 or 15 or 30 seconds and can compress the audio signal so the result on your TV sounds louder. And if TV stations can't?/won't? be more careful about ear assaults, what can we do? How about buying one of those high-end HDTVs and check the remote for the audio setting called "Night" or "Limited." This will reduce the dynamic range of sound that reaches your ears and presumably reduce Cal Worthington and (Grandma's favorite) Billy Mays to a purr.
Or wait for the appearance of a new technology from Dolby Laboratories, the Dolby Volume. It's based on their research into human hearing and is supposed to even out the peaks and valleys in perceived loudness automatically. They hope TV makers will start including it in their sets soon. So do we.