Why Commercials Are Louder Than Television ShowsS

Congress might have passed a bill to make TV commercials quieter, but one anonymous online television engineer explains why it will take more than a law to save our ears.

I can't tell you the names of the television shows our engineer helps get off the air and streamed over your internet, but I can tell you they're popular—millions of viewers daily. We've been talking for a few weeks about why commercials end up being so much louder than television content, even in online streaming platforms like Hulu.

There's No Unified Backend Specification for Online Content

"Wee try to normalize all the different content as best as we can," says 'John', "but it becomes difficult to meet consumer expectations without adding audio artifacts that might also be distasteful to the user." The more engineers touch the content, the worse it can look and sound.

"This situation is often times magnified on dialog-centric shows (60 Minutes, etc.) where the audio track is mostly human. There isn't a large audio frequency range of the human voice—typically 300 Hz to 3400 Hz. The amplitude (or volume) range of that is also compressed so that what the user hears is very focused—not a lot of variation in pitch or volume."

"Coming out of that into a commercial that is primarily focused on the music track with human voice playing a secondary role as just a voice over can amplify this issue—especially when combined with the possibility that the the commercial was mixed to a higher dB level."

They Don't Always Control the Ads

"The other thing that makes this a challenge is the way a lot of ad integrations are done with online video. Often times a 3rd party company's video player is called in a run-time for ad playback. This is typically the ad network's video player. It sits on top of the content provider's player. We do everything we can to make sure those players adhere to the volume controls the user has set in our player." Unfortunately, that lack of a unified standard for content continues in the ad playback system—most of the time, all the engineers can do is talk to the ad companies and request they play nice.

"The actual creative that is playing back is made by all sorts of different companies. There is no true audio standard for volume and quality so you'll see a range of post-production and mixing levels come in from the advertisers."

How Engineers Try To Help Your Ears

"There are some techniques we employ using audio compressors, but we have to be careful as over user results in a 'pumping' affect that is very distracting. Sometimes you'll hear this on radio broadcasts of sports events."

"I think it is an extremely important issue. Its incredibly frustrating, and I don't blame people for complaining. We as an industry ought to be able to get our act together on this. Advertisers need to realize their content is part of the viewing experience as well. Instead, we create deep silos between the two and thus the advertisers have no incentive to care. We do one thing at [redacted]: we deliver video. The video has some ads and some content, but at its core its the only thing we do. Its amazing how few people care about the details."

But Are The Advertisers Actually Pumping Up Their Volume?

I'm sure the advertisers are aware that they can draw attention by juicing the dB levels and 'shocking' the user into paying attention but I can't say definitively. I guess the question is: What effect does that have on the positive association of the brand to the consumer? Both content providers and advertisers rarely realized that the user is exposed to the combined experience of all of their content together. Ads are just as much of the experience as the content. It would be nice to see the industry understand this and agree to better standards."

If Obama signs the bill into law, the industry isn't going to have a choice.