You know the moment. You’re relaxing in front of the television, watching whatever program has caught your eye when the screen fades to an ad break …
AND SUDDENLY THE COMMERCIALS START SCREAMING AT YOU!
It’s one of the most-complained about parts of broadcasting and an issue that’s raised its head yet again during the Australian Open, as fans wonder why ad breaks have them jumping for the mute button as fast as Federer jumps for a volley.
Why are all ads so loud? It only results in me instantly muting or skipping. Wouldn't a lower sound level would be more beneficial?
— Natveri (@MikkelFE) January 26, 2017
So, what’s the story? Are the networks pumping up the volume?
Well, no — it’s even covered off in the Television Industry Code of Practice to make sure — but there’s a big difference between volume and loudness and really, it’s all about perception.
“The factors contributing to loudness are complex,” explains Brett Savill, CEO of Free TV, the industry body which represents Australia’s commercial free-to-air television broadcasters.
“There is a common belief that differences in loudness between programs and advertisements are caused by advertisements being transmitted at higher volume levels than programs. This is not correct.
“Television stations do not vary the volume of the sound output of advertisements when they are transmitted from the station.”
So why then do some people hear them as louder? That’s the tricky part.
“Loudness is different to volume,” Savill says. “Volume is a measure of the level of sound at any given instant in time. Loudness is a measure of the intensity with which we perceive a sound. How loud something sounds depends on a variety of factors, of which volume is only one.”
An ad that interrupts an action movie, for example, will seem quieter than one cutting into a tennis match where the loudest noise is an occasional cheer from the crowd.
And that’s enough to leave us lunging for the mute button.
The infamous Ultra Tune ads often feature explosions and blaring music
“The perceived loudness [of a commercial] should always be constant as long as the broadcaster is honouring the loudness specifications set down in OP59,” says sound engineer Mark Edwards, referring to Free TV Australia’s Operation Practice 59, which states how levels can be measured and what that level should be.
“[But] commercials have to sit next to drama [or other programming], and if that surrounding content is substantially quieter and the commercial conforms to the rules, then it’s going to sound louder,” Edwards said.
“It’s just that simple.”
And it’s also that annoying, as the networks know.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority admits while the networks have never been shown to pump up the volume on ads, they’ve received “a number [of] complaints and queries about the loudness of advertising over the years”.
One of those, about an episode of the medical drama House which screened on Network Ten in October 2008, led to a six-month inquiry and has since become the final word on the matter.
The long and complex report detailed how various internal sound processing equipment, compression and equalisation limiters were all investigated and after a long, complex report, the Authority found Network Ten hadn’t breached the code.
In other words, the volume wasn’t louder.
This was little surprise to Ten, who explained it simply couldn’t be any other way.
There were so many measures in place that, “if a microphone was dropped or audio equipment malfunctioned, limiters place a ceiling on the resultant audio spike”.
And that, quite literally, is the networks’ mic drop moment on the matter.