When the Music Stops You from Watching

Jul 20, 2018

“Can you explain?” one viewer asked recently.

“Loud background music is a growing issue with PBS programming, and we are at a loss to understand why it is necessary.”

Of concern was a California couple’s attempt to watch the July 10 airing of “10 Streets that Changed America.”

Intrigued by the topic, Marilyn Riley and her husband tuned in on KPBS in San Diego. “However our enjoyment of the program was lessened by the background music that intruded on the conversations that the host and his experts were engaged in. We wanted, of course, to hear what they were saying, but the music was often so loud that we could not.

“Eventually we turned the sound off and went to closed captioning. However, in so doing we lost the ability to concentrate on the scenery along the roads and the drawings and pictures that illustrated their history.”

As media organizations overall work to fine-tune user experience, when should producers for public broadcasting programs balance artistic considerations with the abilities of their audiences to enjoy the shows?

We know that a viewer’s ability to hear dialogue can lessen with age and with the particular sound mix of a program.

Turns out that complaints about loud background music muffling voices surface frequently at many public television stations.

“This is not uncommon,” said Bruce Rogow, associate general manager, operations & technology at KPBS Public Media. Rogow even makes house calls to help members make adjustments to hear programming better.  “That’s why I am here,” he said. “I am here for the audience.”

Public television audiences skew older – more than half watching prime-time shows are over 65 – and as their range of hearing starts to diminish, higher ranges thin out first, he said. This can make it especially harder to hear consonants.  Viewers often increase the volume, but if the dialogue and music are coming into their TV on the same channel, they may just magnify the problem.  

“10 Streets” underlays several different types of music under its profiles of 10 historic roads – symphonic strings, sultry clarinets, banjoes, harmonicas, jazz.

While I could hear the dialogue well enough when I streamed the program on my television set, I often found the music to be distracting. Watching via computer, I found the music was loud enough that it was difficult to hear the host interviewing his subjects.

When I asked PBS to connect me with some sound engineers to get a better understanding, I got an emailed reply:

“Audio problems reported by PBS viewers are often – but not always –­ related to something that occurs at the end stages of the delivery chain from PBS to their television set. We believe this may be the case with the program this view experienced with the ‘10 That Changed America’ series. In such instances we recommend that the viewer contact their cable provider or their local PBS station to see if they can help resolve the issue,” wrote Carrie Johnson, Senior Director, Primetime Publicity Strategy.

She also recommended that the viewers adjust settings on their TV set.

Well, I was not surprised that cable providers pointed to the program creators as the cause. In my research, no one in the online help forums suggested contacting a cable provider.  But they did provide help in navigating the TV settings. More on that below.

The Problem

First, the problem: Issues with audibility of dialogue can happen when a program is being produced or when it is being watched.

On the editing end, some producers may feel that loud music keeps things dynamic or adds drama, especially to a static scene.  They may want to use and promote original music that they commissioned and paid for. It may be that editors have heard the dialogue so often, or read the script so many times, that they already know what the host or subjects are saying, so loud music is not a barrier to the conversation for them.

Also, Rogow notes that sometimes program producers are millennials.  “They are just painting with sound and it sounds wonderful to them.”

As production moved to digital formats with high-end audio equipment, editors began editing with headphones and high-quality speakers that gave them a very different sound experience from what the small speakers on most flat-screen TVs deliver.

Adding to viewer difficulties, most programs are created with 5.1 surround sound, and these five channels of sound then get funneled into only a couple of channels on today’s flat-screen TV sets. Moreover, many of these TV speakers may point to the wall instead of into the room.

When I reached out to WTTW in Chicago, which produced “10 Streets,” Julia Maish, manager of media relations, said she talked to the series producer the station’s technical director, and came back with this response:

“Music is an intrinsic part of storytelling, and we pay particular attention to how it meshes with narration and imagery – it truly is an art. We also make our best effort to regulate the audio balance so that it is at an optimum level for most sound systems.”

The Solutions

Solutions, of course, can involve more nuanced sound engineering that boosts the dialogue in the sound mix when a program is being created. Or it can fall into viewers’ hands to remedy the problem. When left on their own, viewers have a few options, some costly and some merely technical. They could:

  1.  Invest in a home-theater system. This is the most expensive option, and the right system could direct voices though a particular speaker that could be calibrated for clearer dialogue.
  2.  Buy a sound bar for your TV set. This is an all-in-one speaker system that can deliver high-quality sound when you connect your TV’s audio output to the sound bar.
  3.  Adjust your TV settings, both the audio settings on the TV itself and on your set-top box via the remote control.
  • On your remote access menu, look for audio or sound profile and set front surround to “off.”
  • Set to “stereo” or “flat” to avoid picking up surround sound.
  • If there is an option to adjust dynamic compression, you can try setting it to “light” for more pronounced differences in sound.
  • If you have the option on your TV sound modes, select “News” or “Clear Voice.”
  • On your TV set, try lowering the bass sounds and increasing the treble.
  • If you have an Apple TV, you can go to Audio & Video and click “reduce sound levels” to keep the dialogue amplified.

Most viewers will have to poke around to find their audio options and then experiment. And I welcome other suggestions from sound engineers.

Rogow, however, cautions that “all these things really don’t make a difference.”

Fixing the Problem

“If you really want to solve the problem, it has to be built into the submission guidelines” for programming being produced for public broadcasters, he said. He advocates for some kind of standard requiring dialogue to be a more prominent part of the mix.

Rogow recently tried to fix the problem for his own mother but ended up returning a couple of new flat-screen TVs. “My engineers, we’re all 60 and older. We all have parents going through the same thing. So there’s a certain amount of understanding and empathy.”

Moreover, he said, “We’re not the only ones realizing this is a problem.”  One of the features on the new Next Gen television standards would provide the technical ability to enhance dialogue. “So this is known,” he said.

I agree with Rogow. PBS, APT and others commissioning public television programs should refine their submission guidelines to ensure that dialogue can be heard clearly. CPB, in funding these programs, could also require greater prominence for dialogue in the sound mix.

Rogow penned an article in the public media trade publication Current last year that added some noteworthy points. As people live longer and find their mobility, vision and cognition, as well as hearing, affected, it can “limit a senior’s window to the world for news information and entertainment.”

“Many rely on public media for programming that keeps them engaged with the world and entertains them with shows they love and enjoy. When these viewers can’t understand the words spoken in a program, it loses its meaning and value and they become frustrated … The quality and accessibility of our programming matters to them and it should matter to those of us who create it and distribute it.”


To receive email alerts to CPB ombudsman columns, go to CPB.org/subscribe