McAdams On: Broadcast Audio, Leave it to the Experts

2/19/2010 1:44:47 PM
Legislation to regulate loud content on TV remains pending on Capitol Hill. Such legislation has circulated before, and nothing new has happened since December on the most recent effort. However, the current proposed law has made it further through the legislative food chain than any of its predecessors.

The related bills gained traction in part because just about every American home has a TV set and a third-grader can comprehend abrupt changes in audio volume. Lawmakers occasionally require something they can all agree on in order to prove there does exist in nature something upon which they can all agree.

“All of us have had the experience of enjoying a favorite program only to find ourselves scrambling to locate the remote control when at the commercial break the volume of the television seemingly doubles. Those volume increases must end.” That was Virginia Democrat Rep. Rick Boucher last fall when his Communications subcommittee signed off on the House version.

If it were as easy as passing a law, those volume increases would have ended already. No one in the broadcast industry is particularly keen on annoying viewers to the point of driving them away. And it’s not is if they don’t know people are annoyed by abrupt audio shifts. They get the phone calls.

It’s also not as if they’re doing nothing about it. Broadcast audio was the topic of many hours of discussion at the Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat this week in Rancho Mirage, Calif. After the display of a startling number of bar graphs, line charts and other plotted values of dialogue, commercial transitions and general program content, it’s clear that audio levels vary significantly and often suddenly on TV.  Kind of like in real life.

Except for the sounds of real life generally occur in a somewhat organic or at least contiguous environment. The audio in television is attached to multiple and disparate sources that are stitched together, often on the fly and at the last minute, for distribution to homes. Notwithstanding the multiple variations of the distribution system and all its inherent, potential anomalies, each source of content bears an agenda of getting one’s attention and manipulating emotional response.

Case in point: The opening of the crime drama “CSI” typically begins with the lead character making his inevitable cryptic remark as if to his lapel, immediately followed by Pete Townsend’s full-body power shred on “Baba O’Riley.” That’s clearly on purpose; the show’s producers do it for effect--typically the Pavlovian signal that it’s time to pay attention to the tube. That type of shift seems to be copasetic with viewers compared to say, a transition from the lapel chat to a caffeine-drenched voice bellowing about free mattresses.

One is apparently acceptable; the other is not. Countless hours of work, intellectual rigor, debate and standardization has been expended to define a comfort zone for television audio. The resulting technology and practices are just now coming into regular implementation, and thus deserve a chance to work.

Should lawmakers proceed with its current audio legislation, it will give the FCC a year to come up with parameters. The industry is already far ahead of that curve. The only thing a law would do is complicate an already sufficiently complicated issue, and probably impose yet another massively cumbersome record-keeping requirement.

Some things are better left unregulated.