Where's the Big DTV Sound?

During a dinner at the recent AES show in New York City, I listened as a highly respected audio expert ridiculed the sad state of television sound.

His criticism wasn't targeted at local broadcasting, mind you, but primetime network programming. He joked about making scene-by-scene predictions of the gratuitous overuse of surround effects as his wife watches a favorite show.

He noted a correlation: The more surround is pumped up, the muddier the dialog gets. His prediction: As broadcasters move to all-digital technology, we're in for some very, very bad audio in the years ahead.

It's no secret that for decades sound has been the poor stepchild of television. But years of cost-cutting throughout the broadcast industry has clearly extracted a pound of audio flesh-both in the stable employment of audio professionals and investment in top quality equipment.

On the local side, especially in news and ENG-style production, sound operators were often replaced by... nobody. The "one man band" is just that. When you're out there alone, the picture comes first.

Even when a second body is sent with the camera operator, one often wonders if he or she has any training in how to acquire high-quality audio in the field.


More than once, while walking the streets of New York City, I've observed a news crew with a second person-without headphones-holding a boom microphone.

I love to play the dumb novice, asking this "professional sound recordist" exactly how one tells if the audio is OK without wearing headphones. The standard answer is that you just to look to make sure the needle is moving on the camcorder's VU meter. I nod. Duh!

As we move toward the analog turn-off of local broadcasting, I predict many stations are going to have an audio train wreck on their hands. Some of their programs are going to sound like chalk screeching across a blackboard, while others will simulate bacon frying in the background.

About two decades ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, I remember attending a meeting of a group of program producers and broadcasters on a vacant Hollywood soundstage. The topic of the gathering was stereo and surround sound for television.

To hear all the complaining that day about the problems associated with the then emerging new audio technology, you'd have thought the entertainment industry was being asked to re-invent itself.

What was actually happening in that meeting was the first realization that an era was ending. The producers and broadcast technicians were no longer going to be able to get away with making cheap mono soundtracks for video.

With digital technology on the horizon, the industry was going to have to clean up its audio act. Many would be dragged kicking and screaming into the era of stereo and surround sound.

The feature motion picture side embraced the future first. DVDs delivered the first quality sound with picture to the home. Now, the major networks are at least trying to produce their most important programming in surround. It will take some time to get it right, but one must assume they will get better with practice and experience.

Local broadcasters, well that's another matter. Face it, many consumers have better sound systems at home than some local broadcasters have in their facilities. The analog audio infrastructure has never been upgraded in too many television stations.

I was told repeatedly at AES 2005 that even with the impending deadline for all-digital transmission, most local broadcasters are still resisting investment in high-quality audio equipment. One prominent vendor who makes state-of-the-art sound gear told me "off-the-record" that he rarely counts television and radio broadcasters among his customers.

That's a sad state of affairs, especially when "big" sound-not as much "crystal clear" pictures-has proven to be a killer app for DVDs and digital television.


Even to this day-at demo after demo-it's the high-impact digital surround sound that most impresses people when sitting in a comfortable media room environment.

The impact of music is especially dramatic. When experiencing those beautifully remastered DVD box sets of concerts through a good quality surround audio system, the pictures become almost irrelevant.

If the "wow! factor" is with the sound, why have local broadcasters failed to exploit the technology? Why not produce local programs, commercials and even news in surround? Why not surprise viewers with better sound when they invest in the digital transition?

Broadcasters contend they are overburdened just getting digital video facilities on the air. Maybe so, but they not only asked for the DTV transition, they've had almost 20 years to prepare for it. Now, with everyone from Congress to viewers tired of the old excuses, it's crunch time.

In upgrading broadcast facilities, the audio part of the DTV equation may just deliver the most bang for the buck. Because consumer home theater systems are now so affordable, digital surround sound is far more accessible than still pricey HDTV displays.

Unfortunately, it appears that many local DTV viewers will not get the full audio experience when digital transmissions finally begin. That's a shame and it's unnecessary.

The potential uses of digital surround sound technology are limited only by the imagination. And that is the problem.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.