The problem of commercials being too loud is the result of an arms race, of sorts, that has its roots in practices that were set decades ago. But it is not a race to the top, to world domination, to commercial success. It is a race to the bottom, to the lowest possible quality and the worst outcome for all.
The problem exists world-wide. The US have passed a law, and in New Zealand it is Labour Party Policy. Debates rage on forums, both public, amateur and professional about the cause of the problem and what can be done about it.
Before running Radio NZ's web operation I was a recording engineer. I started out as a Trainee Radio Studio Operator in 1981, and I've worked in commercial and public radio, on sports broadcasts, and music recording of all genres from early music through the classics, world music, jazz and rock. I've also recorded film scores, and mastered and re-mastered albums.
In the 80s I set-up the audio processing for a couple of Wellington radio stations, 91ZM (now ZMFM) and 2ZB (now NewstalkZB). I was in the fortunate position of having made commercials, done on-air sound mixing (called panel operating in some countries) and worked on the station sound (via audio processing). This allowed me to try out my ideas for improvement on-air, and hear the results first-hand.
Sometime in the mid 80's I was asked to contribute to discussions at TVNZ about the problem of loud commercials.
I will start by defining the problem from the viewer's (and listener's) perspective.
You turn on the television to watch a programme. You sit down, adjust the volume so that it is comfortable for you, and start to enjoy the programme. As the show moves from scene to scene (assuming there is no ad break) the volume remains comfortable; you can hear everything that is being said, any music and effects are neither too loud or too quiet.
Then a commercial break arrives. The volume suddenly increases. It is no longer comfortable to listen to - it is intrusive. During the programme you could have a side-conversation with your fellow viewers. That is now impossible. You reach for the remote and mute the audio.
This is the experience of hundreds of millions of television viewers.
The perception is that someone, somewhere, is turning up the commercials.
So, the problem in a nutshell: the volume of broadcast items is inconsistent, to the point of being disruptive and annoying.
Fixing the Problem
It is very unlikely that anyone, anywhere, is turning up the commercials. I've certainly never seen it.
The problem is caused by a number of technical and operational factors, and is (probably) rounded off by management being unwilling to deal with the issues for 'competitive reasons'.
The problem is complex, and I want to make the explanation accessible to people outside the audio industry. I'll spend a few posts looking at various aspects of the problem, explaining some of the basics of audio, hearing and listening before moving onto solutions.
Please leave any questions, or things you want explained in the comments.