Reality Bytes: Turn Down the Funk

You know what I'm talking about. You're watching your favorite TV show - well, okay, actually you're just mindlessly dozing in front of the tube (maybe even with a little drool), and then suddenly a LOUD COMMERCIAL jolts you wake! What the heck? Why are the commercials always so much louder than the programs?

Actually, the commercials aren't louder. Broadcasters have a peak level that neither programs nor commercials can exceed. Rather, the dynamic range of commercials is more highly compressed. That means the difference between soft and loud is diminished, and the flattened track is pushed up to the limit. So, commercials seem louder.

You can't really blame the advertisers. They bought the time, and they have an urgently important message to disseminate. Consider: If you were an advertiser and your commercial followed a loud action scene, you wouldn't want your pitch to be softer. And, if your ad is loud, a viewer still might hear it even if he's heading out of the room toward the porcelain throne. Ironically, DTV is making the problem worse. The ATSC audio standard (which uses Dolby Digital) permits a wider dynamic range, which means programs might seem even softer.

Here's one solution. Taking time off from its main job (getting itself re-elected) and probably even postponing a crucial session to vote itself a pay raise, the U.S. Congress is leaping into action. House representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and co-sponsor Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) have introduced House bill H.R. 6209. Called the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act, it directs the FCC to establish new regulations to ensure that commercials aren't subjectively louder than other programming. According to the bill, it would "require the Federal Communications Commission to prescribe a standard to preclude commercials from being broadcast at louder volumes than the program material they accompany." Furthermore, the new regulations would "prohibit advertisements accompanying video programming from . . . being excessively noisy or strident."

According to Representative Eshoo, "Most Americans are not overjoyed to watch . . . commercials, but they are willing to tolerate them to sustain free over-the-air television. What annoys all of us is the sudden increase of volume when commercials are aired." At odds with her statement is the requirement that the bill's regulations would apply to commercials on both broadcast and cable TV. Last time I checked, cable was neither free nor conveyed over-the-air.

In any case, this proposal is a simple solution, kind of like the do-not-call list, that seems to make sense. Never mind that the country is fighting two foreign wars, and we have no immigration or energy policy, and government could probably put its time to better use. Dammit, the loud-commercial crisis must be addressed!

I don't want to seem negative, and of course, I support every innovative idea that Congress proposes. But I'll simply make this comment: This bill is a totally dumb idea, and it has the added advantage of being unenforceable. What are we supposed to do? Levy a $550,000 fine when Janet Jackson has a volume-control malfunction?

Fortunately, practical solutions are already available from the private sector. At the broadcast and distribution end, as part of the ATSC standard, Dolby Digital has built-in loudness-normalization parameters. Using these protocols, any receiving decoder will recognize the metadata and adjust the sound to proper levels. All Dolby audio signals are controlled by these parameters; when used properly, they ensure consistent levels across one channel and between many channels. True, some engineers and producers aren't setting the metadata properly, but that's a simple matter of education and experience.

At the receiving end, systems such as Dolby Volume use psychoacoustic models that help maintain a consistent level across all kinds of material. They let the listener (not the government) control a program's dynamic range, optimizing it for personal taste, particular listening conditions (such as late-night viewing), and the gear at hand.

The point is that we want TV with a wide dynamic range. After decades of listening to squashed analog audio from two-inch built-in speakers, we want kick-ass TV sound played through our home theaters. Let's not mess that up.

So I've got some alternative suggestions for Congress: How about a law that prohibits televised political ads from being "excessively noisy or strident." Or how about a law that completely mutes any negative political ads. Or maybe . . . Oh, never mind.