TV commercials are too damn loud!
March 15, 2006 9:50 PM   Subscribe

Is there a way to keep TV commercials from being so much louder then the program that I'm watching?

When watching a television program, I often have to fumble around for the remote control during commercial breaks to keep the volume from being too loud. Is there a practical way to 'normalize' the volume?

If it matters, the television is a Panasonic TH42PX25. The service is Comcast Digital Cable. The tuner is a Motorola DCT6412 III.

Here is a link to the TV's user manual in PDF format though I couldn't find anything useful...

Here is a link to the tuner's user manual, (I didn't have any luck)

Thanks for your help.
posted by devilshgrin to Technology (30 answers total)
Maybe something like this?

I don't know anything about these, so I can't recommend any brands/styles or give any feedback, but that's the general idea.
posted by jahmoon at 10:03 PM on March 15, 2006

It's not that the commercials are actually louder, it's that they're produced at such higher quality that it seems louder.

It's the same with my Ipod. Music ripped at 128k sound much quieter than music ripped at 320k.

But sorry, I don't have a solution.
posted by spork at 10:04 PM on March 15, 2006

Commercials are actually played louder. I have no idea what settings you have, but if your receiver or tuner or TV have "dynamic range compression" or anything to that effect, you can at least make it so that the louds are a little less loud and the quiets are a little less quiet. This isn't quite what you asked, but it means you can don't need to turn the volume up quite as much during the show if it's too quiet in parts.
posted by kcm at 10:10 PM on March 15, 2006

It's not that the commercials are actually louder, it's that they're produced at such higher quality that it seems louder.
I don't believe this is true. The old adage goes something along the lines of if it annoys you, it's working. Thus advertisers, meaning producers of ads, or stations, broadcasters of ads, will set the volume level for programming to a lower volume and the volume of ads to a higher volume. Just look at your local "Bob's Discount Furniture" ad, there's one in every state, just replace the word Bob, and you'll see that he's practically screaming, the volume is loud, and the quality of the ad is lower than some cable access work.

As for how to resolve the issue with your television, you're looking for an auto volume feature, which acts like an attenuator. I can't seem to open the PDF, so poke through your manual looking for either the word volume or attenuator and you'll likely find your answer. I have this feature set on all of my TVs.
posted by sequential at 10:12 PM on March 15, 2006

I work for a satellite tv provider, and I get this question a few times a month. spork and kcm are both right, and unfortunately there is little you can do, short of buying a TV that has a volume-levelling system built in. Some TVs level things out primatively by just not letting the volume exceed a certain dB range, but this don't doesn't really even things out, it just means the commercials can't get too loud. Better TVs can intelligently reduce/increase their volume to make the levels between different programs and commercials even.

Of course, if your audio output is through a stereo or something similar, your TV's abilities are moot.

I suffer this same problem at home - you have my sympathies.
posted by chudmonkey at 10:15 PM on March 15, 2006

sequential and spork are both right: some commercials are made loud for the attention-grabbing factor, some commercials simply have less sophisticated audio processing which can flood your left and right speakers with all the audio input intended for a 5.1 channel system.
posted by chudmonkey at 10:17 PM on March 15, 2006

so is there truth to the saying, "commercials are played as loud as the louded point of the show you are watching"?
posted by freudianslipper at 10:20 PM on March 15, 2006

freudianslipper: damn straight.
posted by chudmonkey at 10:25 PM on March 15, 2006

Commercials are *not* played louder, as there are broadcast standards that television stations must adhere to (if this wasn't in place, stations would probably be selling commercials at a rate per decibel and you'd end up getting blown around your living room during commercial break).
How TV (and radio) stations get around this is by compressing the audio level of the commercial so that it's perceived loudness is increased.

From this wikipedia article:

Most television commercials are compressed heavily in order to achieve near-maximum perceived loudness while staying within permissible limits.

Damned if I know how to get round it though....
posted by The_Partridge_Family at 10:32 PM on March 15, 2006

Commercials are *not* played louder ... [stations are] compressing the audio level of the commercial so that it's perceived loudness is increased.

So, as far as any human being's perception of loudness and quietness goes, they are, er, louder, right?

I have watched TV for years now with my hand on the mute button, for this reason. Technical explanations that something I'm hearing is not really happening, it just sounds like it's happening, are a bit abstract, it seems to me.

I'm also not really seeing Jessica Alba on my TV, it's just a pattern of dots, but you know, it really looks like her...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:53 PM on March 15, 2006

Can't you use the mute button? If you really, actually want to know what the ad is saying, why not set the television to automatically turn on the closed captioning whenever it's muted?
posted by interrobang at 10:54 PM on March 15, 2006

TIVO - no commercials = no loud commercials

by the way, I think those broadcast standards only apply to broadcast tv, not cable only channels.
posted by caddis at 11:13 PM on March 15, 2006

Download your tv from the net. They are all ripped without ads. Then you can watch when you are ready, and pause any time.

or a tivo, if you live in a country where one makes sense.
posted by lundman at 11:47 PM on March 15, 2006

My Magnavox TV has a smart sound feature that automatically keeps commercials in line. It was my single biggest reason for choosing it among a dozen alternatives. It's a few years old -- the feature is probably more common now.
posted by Tubes at 12:12 AM on March 16, 2006

The "it's louder" / "it's not louder" debate is a problem of terminology I think. The Wikipedia arcticle is correct in that commercials are processed to be perceived louder, but loudness is a perceptual term that we often associate with signal amplitude. Both program and commercial material have the same maximum amplitude by regulatory decree. But commericals have been compressed so they hit this maximum amplitude much more often than programs do. I think for complex sound signals what most people consider "louder" is actually higher "power". Signal power is signal strength over time, i.e. "area under the curve" not just "maximum height of curve". Audio compression can increase the maximum power of the signal while leaving the same maximum amplitude.

Compression technology has improved greatly in the last 20 years or so. MusicThing had a great visual description of the increased use of compressors in music. This is why classical stations always seem quieter and probably why the poster upthread thinks his 320kbps mp3s are louder than his 128kbps ones. I think instead it's that the 128k files are older music.

Regulatory bodies like the FCC also mandate maximum power on signals, mostly for technical reasons, and like all regulations they are open to interpretation.

And to address the original question: short of TiVo or Bittorrent, I know of no magic gizmo that you can add to your TV to solve this. There does exist the opposite of a compressor called an expander, but it wouldn't really help here. But look on the bright side, TiVo and Bittorrent are the beginning of a new way of doing TV, in five years annoying intrusive commercials will be non-existant. Instead, GoogTV will seemlessly insert perfectly targeted AdSensoriumâ„¢ CG product placements into the shows you download. "Look, Keanu is using the exact same Sony VR headset I was thinking of getting..."
posted by todbot at 3:05 AM on March 16, 2006

How about the "mute" button on your remote?
posted by cahlers at 4:03 AM on March 16, 2006

Sounds louder = louder, in my world. The arguments against commercials actually being louder remind me of when a company I worked for moved to a new building.

In the new place, to find they'd installed mercury-vapor lamps high up in the new space. It was like working in an aquarium. Couldn't see any details, because the light was so blue. Management whipped out their light meter and said, "Look, it's actually more light than before." Unfortunately, the light meter didn't read our gauges and scales for us.

When you're talking about senses, like hearing and vision, perception is the only measure that matters. If it sounds louder, it is louder - regardless of non-human measurements of sound.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:21 AM on March 16, 2006

"I think for complex sound signals what most people consider "louder" is actually higher "power". Signal power is signal strength over time, i.e. "area under the curve" not just "maximum height of curve"."

EE pedantry go:

Signal energy is, roughly, the integral (area under) of the squared signal amplitude. It makes sense that the signal amplitude is squared, since otherwise signals oscillating around zero (e.g. all audio, remembering that zero is where we put it) would have no energy. Basically, signal energy, not signal power, is signal strength over time.

Signal power (energy per time), instantaneously, is proportional to amplitude squared. More usefully you can take the average signal power, which is the energy from the paragraph above divided by the time it was integrated over.

So you could say that the commercial's audio has more energy, or its average power is higher.

I won't get into it because it gets more complicated, but if you develop this more with more integrating, probability, and Fourier Transforms, you can show that for similar amplitudes white noise, i.e. static, is the most powerful signal, and therefore it is mathematically proven that the most powerful form of music is Merzbow, followed closely by death metal, and death metal vocals are the most powerful form of singing.

In summary, throw away your TV, and it will cease to bother you. Download television from BitTorrent. Or just listen to Merzbow and death metal.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:29 AM on March 16, 2006

I believe that the regulations which stipulate how loud a commercial can be talk in terms difference in Decibels. The problem is that the standard Decibel scale is really a measure of acoustics rather than of human hearing - it does not take account of the fact that we are more sensitive to some frequencies than others. This gives commercial producers two loopholes: they can choose effects and music which are weighted towards frequencies at which people are sensitive- and they can compress the whole signal to similar ends.

A better route might have been for the regulations to use the dB(A) scale which compensates for human hearing sensitivity. More from Wikipedia.
posted by rongorongo at 4:40 AM on March 16, 2006

Brace yourself, it's going to get worse. Currently the advertisers can only use analog methods (e.g. the above mentioned compression) to make the sound louder. In digital TV audio there's now a setting in the data stream called dialnorm which is used to benchmark the loudness of the audio against a standard, and that setting is used to set the gain of the amplifier when the stream is being converted back to sound. I guarantee that setting will be abused by advertisers. Thus a market will arise for dialnorm override boxes / features ...
posted by intermod at 5:39 AM on March 16, 2006

Just so you know, interrobang and cahlers, he's not retarded, he doesn't want to have to "fumble around for the remote control during commercial breaks", which precludes any but the most innovative mute button.

This reminds me of that MetaTalk thread about people who just don't read the question...
posted by jacalata at 5:54 AM on March 16, 2006

I know of no magic gizmo that you can add to your TV to solve this.

My ReplayTVs actually use the typical loudness of the commercial break (coupled with other signals like long fades into black and FCC cues) to create an XML file associated with every recording of a programme that tags specific portions of a recording as "content", and others as "advert".

During playback, you can then hit a button on the remote called "Commercial Advance" that will skip automagically past any advert blocks and play just content. It works around 90% of the time and is completely hands off.

This also comes in handy during a show like the Superbowl, when it's possible to invert the playback and skip all content, playing just adverts!

This technology was deployed in 2000 and was oneof two things about ReplayTV that annoyed the TV and cable companies so much they basically sued the company into bankruptcy. Which is one reason why the verb today is "to Tivo" rather than "To Replay". The other was the ability to send and receive entire show records over the Internet with no DRM, which was amazing in 2000 and still pretty cool today.

As a settlement the company removed the automatic commercial skip from future releases. It's sad to think that this simple technology is over decade old now, and its development was nipped in the bud. But it really is your "magic box" when it comes to skipping content. Perhaps MythTV on Linux now offers similar advert identification and skipping/muting?
posted by meehawl at 6:40 AM on March 16, 2006

It drives me crazy. If I had the web nous, I would start up an online petition to do something about it. It's basically noise pollution. It has led to a bezillion arguments between my wife and me ("will you please turn that DOWN?"). I actually wrote to my MP about it once but received no reply. HOW CAN WE STOP IT?!!!
posted by Mrs.Doyle at 7:51 AM on March 16, 2006

I know offhand that British TV channels have been censured for playing their commercials at a higher volume than their programming. (Anyone who's watched a film on Channel Four will know what I'm talking about. God damn those Stella Artois idents!) There was an article about it in MediaGuardian some time last year; I just tried to google it but no dice. You might have better luck.
posted by macdara at 8:09 AM on March 16, 2006

If anyone is still confused about the "loudness" question, here's how I think of it:

As I understand it, commercials in the US can be no louder than than the loudest parts of TV shows, like the gunfights and explosions. We expect and accept the brief, loud gunfights and explosions in TV shows, and the normal levels of conversation in between. The problem arises when the local appliance salesman wants to pitch refrigerators to us with his music, sound effects and voice all cranked up to gunfight/explosion volume for a full half a minute.

I believe this is the "compression" people have mentioned -- when everything is run at the maximum regulated volume level.
posted by Tubes at 8:42 AM on March 16, 2006

On a side note, this article on dynamic range compression in modern music appeared on Digg recently.
posted by Tubes at 9:23 AM on March 16, 2006

When you're talking about senses, like hearing and vision, perception is the only measure that matters. If it sounds louder, it is louder - regardless of non-human measurements of sound.

But whether a machine can recognize it as "louder" does matter if you're trying to figure out how to get a tv to minimize the difference.
posted by lampoil at 9:48 AM on March 16, 2006

Ah, yes. But I would rather figure out how to get the humans sending the signal to my TV to minimize the difference. They have the same built-in sound-level-detecting apparatus as me, more or less.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:37 AM on March 16, 2006

I think Magnavox's Smart Sound is BS - ours doesn't work... the commercials are still louder. We always mute during commercials.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:23 PM on March 16, 2006

This is the magic gizmo you have all been looking for: TV VOLUME REGULATOR!!!!

In case you missed it the first time. :P
posted by jahmoon at 6:45 PM on March 16, 2006

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