Broadcasters turn down loud ads

Labour's HomeBulld policy might have been ignored, but it gains traction with a "first-world problem". PLUS: Why you'll still be reaching for your remote.

Labour's HomeBulld policy might have been ignored, but it gains traction with a "first-world problem": loud ads.

TVNZ, MediaWorks and Maori TV say they have reached an agreement on the compression technology that makes many advertisements so much louder than the programmes they interrupt. Sky TV has not formally signed on to the initiative but says it will support it.

The agreement kicks in January 1, but TVNZ says it will start Sunday. In a statement emailed to NBR ONLINE, CEO Kevin Kenrick said "we just want to get on with it". The state broadcaster will foot the bill for adjusting the audio on ads already submitted.

So are we entering a golden age where we don't have to to lunge for the remote?

Almost, but not quite.

Earlier, TVNZ's general manager of technology Peter Ennis told NBR free-to-air broadcasters here had agreed to follow the International Telecommunications Union's IITU 1770 recommendation, already widely adopted overseas by bodies such as the European Broadcasters' Union. 

But he added the qualifier, "It's important to remember, however, that while these standards go some way towards reducing the perceived loudness differences between and within programme and advertising content it is unlikely that all differences will be eliminated, mainly because advertisers and TV creatives will continue to want to use dynamic range for effect."

Labour broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran began agitating on the issue since November last year. Broadcasters say their effort pre-dates the Dunedin South MP's push, but NBR suspects it at least focused them on finally implementing it.

So why are ads so loud?
Post-production expert and one-time TVNZ editor Dylan Reeve explained to NBR why TV ads sound so loud, despite broadcasters protests they are subject to the same peak decibel limit:

Television broadcasters specify a maximum "peak" audio level – the loudest any part of the audio can be. That is so programmes and commercials will conform to that same maximum audio level. However, that does not restrict the quietest or average audio level.

Ads are usually heavily compressed. Not in the sense of file compression, but dynamic range compression. The quietest parts are made louder so they are closer to the loudest parts (that is, there is less range between quiet and loud). This way they can have a louder overall sound without exceeding maximum peak levels.

Programmes, because they are longer and more subtle in their content, are never really compressed as heavily – meaning they sound "quieter".

By adopting a standard for objective loudness measurement, broadcasters can better account for the perceptual loudness in highly compressed audio, Mr Reeve says.

"It's not perfect, and there will still be considerable differences in loudness across content – an hour-long TV show has a lot more subtlety in its sound mix than a 30-second commercial. But, overall, we shouldn't have to reach for the remote as often."

The biggest issue for the broadcasters, at least initially, will be ensuring that content meets the new standards. Loudness measurement is a fairly new concept; audio mixers aren't as used to it yet, and hardware and software to measure it isn't that common yet.

There will be a considerable adjustment period for some.

Heading off regulation
In the US, Congress passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (or CALM) in Decmeber 2010.

France also moved to regulate blaring ads.

Here, free-to-air broadcasters, with Sky TV in orbit, seem to have successfully headed off regulation with their own effort.

TVNZ says inhouse research helped it decide to act.

Independent consumer research conducted by the state broacaster in July revealed 94% of 18- to 54-year-old respondents noticed the difference between ad and programme volumes.

Presumably, the other 6% were deaf.

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