Monday, January 04, 2010

How loud is allowed?

I think of H.R. 6209, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act as one of those "feel good" bills. After all -- everyone knows that TV ads are much louder than the programs they're embedded in, right? And everyone hates it, so it's only right that the government step in and DO SOMETHING, right?

It's certainly attractive legislation for the congresscritters, that's for sure. After all, if come out against loud TV ads, no one's going to start protesting outside your office door dressed in funny costumes and howling for your head.

Two questions to ask of any legislation that feel-good bills always seem to get a pass on.

1) Will this law effectively address the problem it's supposed to?
2) Are there any potential unintended consequences that this legislation might lead to?

Many folks assume that Congress will be banning loud commercials. Nope. According to the bill, it simply directs the FCC to devise a standard that precludes overly loud commercials.

Now some aspects of volume are tied to the physical world and aren't matters of opinion. If you stand next to a revving aircraft engine without ear protection, you will lose your hearing. If you use a sandblaster without ear protection, over time you will experience hearing loss.

But this bill isn't about absolute volume levels -- it's about relative levels. And that's where things get messy. Let's look at the actual legislation.

"Advertisements accompanying such video programming (described earlier as any video programming that is broadcast or that is distributed by any multichannel video programming distributor) shall not be excessively noisy or strident."

I like string quartet music. My wife, who has a hearing loss, doesn't. The higher range of the violin sounds harsh and piercing to her -- almost painfully so. So if an ad uses a violin, one of us thinks its strident, while the other doesn't. Who will decide for the nation?

There's always been a generation gap when it comes to music. Older people complain that what youngsters listen to isn't music -- it's noise. So if an ad uses the latest pop song, who decides if it's "excessively noisy?"

What does excessive mean, anyway? Are two or more audio tracks going on simultaneously? Too many sound effects? Too many voices talking at once? There are all kinds of innovative and/or edgy ads that some people enjoy that others absolutely hate. So who decides what's "excessive?"

(2) such advertisements shall not be presented at modulation levels substantially higher than the program material that such advertisements accompany and

(3) the average maximum loudness of such advertisements shall not be substantially higher than the average maximum loudness of the program material that such advertisements accompany.

Seems reasonable -- unless you know a little something about sound.

First off, one of the reasons ads can sound louder than the show is that their sound is compressed further. Mono sound fed through two speakers can have a greater impact than stereo. Lessen the contrast between high and low, and the sound has more punch to it. So if you go by volume level, an ad could still be within the prescribed range, yet still sound louder to the human ear.

And let's take a look at that guideline in section three. The ad can't be louder than the average maximum loudness of the program. Think of a horror or suspense movie. Most of it is very quiet until POW! something scary happens. If the POW! is the volume limit, then commercials aired at the level during the quiet parts of the show will seem excessively loud. How loud or how soft something is perceived to depend on context -- what's the volume compared to what it was before?

Also, who determines this average maximum volume? Will broadcasters or content creators need to provide a number with their program? Will they have to go back and note the average maximum volume for everything they aired? Will they not be allowed to air anything until they provide that number?

Ads are inserted after the fact by the various network and cable providers. So if Comcast's equipment isn't calibrated properly and ads are fed at a higher volume than the programming -- who's at fault and who pays the fine?

A final thought. According to Wikipedia's article on dynamic compression (and other sources)
Most television commercials are compressed heavily (typically to a dynamic range of no more than 3dB) in order to achieve near-maximum perceived loudness while staying within permissible limits... While commercials receive heavy compression for the same reason that radio broadcasters have traditionally used it (to achieve a "loud" audio image), TV program material, particularly old movies with soft dialogue, is comparatively uncompressed by TV stations. This results in commercials much louder than the television programs, since users turn up the volume to hear soft program audio. This problem is a difficult one to solve because much TV program audio contains very little audio energy to be electronically "expanded" with a compressor in an attempt to even out the volume. Even across the cable TV dial with myriad audio program volume sources, there is a wide disparity of audio volume levels.
In other words, TV ads are already making the most of a particular volume level while the programming sources aren't. So advertisers can still be within the technical guidelines (such as they are) of the proposed legislation and still sound louder than the surrounding material.

The sane thing to do here is not passing legislation that just makes things complicated for everyone. It's really quite simple.

Wield your remote as the weapon it was crafted to be. Hit the mute button.

Because this legislation quite simply ignores the reality of broadcasting and the science of acoustics. So either it will fail in its purpose or -- more likely -- a set of arcanely bizarre hoops will be constructed to force reality to match the rules. And that benefits no one.

Seriously, of all the issues facing us right now, is it really the best use of our elected officials' time to adjust the volume of our TVs by law? Is this really the most pressing problem in their constituents' lives? If so, then we're much better off than I thought.

- Ralph

No comments:

Post a Comment