Despite government and industry efforts to contain the loudness of TV commercials and broadcast content, having to chase the volume with the remote is still a huge problem. Except now, it’s the industry’s fault.
Most of us can relate: You’re watching your favorite show (it could be broadcast, cable or ad-supported streaming). You can hear and understand the dialogue; the music and sound effects sit in the pocket. At the commercial break, the ads come blasting in, seemingly twice as loud as the program you were just watching. You change the channel, and this one seems really loud by comparison, so you have to turn it down to get back to a comfortable listening volume. But then the ads come in and it’s the same problem again.
Maybe you decide to go to HBO so you don’t have to deal with the ads. But now, everything seems really quiet and you have to turn the volume up way louder than you previously had it.
Then, when you finally decide to go back to satellite or cable, everything is really loud again.
This has been going on for years. In the mid 2000s, engineers from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and European Broadcasting Union (EBU) published guidelines in a document called A85 to quantify perceived loudness and create a measurement standard. It’s even mandated by an act of Congress called the Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act.
This was a great idea, but advertisers tried to game that system so that ads would stay loud to grab viewers’ attention. Thus, the loudness guidelines were revised and made more complicated, and people started interpreting them differently. Now, in 2019, we still don’t have a functioning loudness standard because only a small handful of networks and streaming services use the guidelines correctly.
The fundamental problem, and why it’s actually the industry’s fault, is that the A85 guidelines specify that the loudness of commercials is measured using what’s called “Full Program” measurement — meaning all dialogue, music and sound effects — but actual broadcast content (episodic shows, sports, news — literally everything on TV that’s not commercials) should measure the loudness of the dialogue only and leave it up to the discretion of the creators how to balance the music and sound effects. If you measure the Full Program loudness of shows, you end up with a half-hour of dialogue-driven comedy seeming perceptibly louder than an hour of action-packed car chases, spaceship dogfights, dragon sieges or gun battles, because as the human ear naturally focuses its attention on the spoken word, it allows for the relative loudness of other audio content around dialogue to fit in naturally.
The dialogue level on a show with a lot of explosions is going to get pushed down by this incorrect Full Program measurement, because the explosions count towards the loudness. But because the ear and brain focus on the dialogue, the half-hour comedy will feel louder overall, because the dialogue is consistently louder. To quote one of the authors of the guidelines that the CALM act is based on, “This practice will not yield the intended results.”
Your Volume May Vary
In researching this issue, my team and I spoke with engineers, mixers, content producers and heads of broadcast for some of the major U.S. content providers. The only company that expressed interest in improving the experience of viewers was Netflix. Since our initial round of interviews and requests, Netflix has altered their loudness requirements.
Based on data from user experience and feedback from those who mix the audio content for their shows, Netflix revised their specifications to allow for a more consistent, uniform and enjoyable listening experience. Part of the reason for this is that they are able to gather almost instantaneous user feedback because of their platform and business model. Another part is that they are a modern, forward-thinking media company that is less entrenched in “the way we do it” and more open to “the way we could do it.” Apple, YouTube and Amazon have also begun to measure program volume correctly.
Hulu has a sort of “we’ll let you do it that way” policy for their original content, even though most of their programming comes from broadcast sources that have done it incorrectly. NBC and CBS, it’s worth mentioning, are the only two traditional broadcasters to do it correctly, and they have since the beginning.
It would be relatively simple for the entire industry to switch over to the correct way of implementing loudness measurements. All it needs is the will to do it.
Jon Greasley is a re-recording mixer and sound designer at King Soundworks in Los Angeles.