Rich Warren: Sounding off about television shows

Rich Warren: Sounding off about television shows

Did you miss the punch line? Some TV viewers aren't laughing because they don't hear ear-to-ear with broadcasters. This reader email defines the issue:

"It seems for the last year or more that sound engineers/producers/directors/editors are trying to sabotage their shows with tone poems that are supposed to set the mood/drama.

"These tone poems drown out the dialogue, especially when actors are whispering key parts of their lines. Whispering actors seem to be more prevalent now than in days gone by. CBS is particularly bad at this and I've called them to explain the issue with no resolution to date.

"We subscribe to New Wave cable, who I've spoken to and who says they only pass along the network signal, as received. I've also talked with WCIA Channel 3, who can adjust the sound for commercials to keep them from "blasting" the airwaves but are not permitted to adjust network TV show volumes.

"We have three HDTVs, no home theater system and no ability to lower the center sound, which I'm told carries the background tone poems.

"Would you have any ideas for what options we may have to resolve this issue?"

First, I assume when you say "tone poems" you refer to the background music on most TV shows. Over the past several years, the producers and directors of TV shows increasingly use background (and sometimes foreground) music to enhance or define the mood of the program.

Nearly all networks distribute their TV programs using Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. WCIA is being completely honest in that it has no control about the balances within a given network supplied program.

Assuming no technical malfunctions, the cable company (or satellite company) does not interfere with the mix between voice and music on TV shows. However, the digital compression used by cable and satellite operators can unintentionally subtly change the overall sound and contribute small amounts of distortion.

If the director and original sound technician mix the TV show to Dolby specifications, the center channel speaker reproduces 100 percent dialog. The left and right front speakers contain the music, some effects, the stereo cues and possibly some dialog.

Here are two solutions.

The first takes a few minutes and costs nothing. Access the audio setup menu of the TV and you may find the ability to alter the balances between the channels. Turn down the level of the left and right front channels (and surround channels and subwoofer bass) and/or increase the level of the front center channel. This should increase the level of the dialog while reducing the music and improve intelligibility. In the audio settings menu, some sets even include a voice enhancement setting, sometimes labeled "news."

If your set lacks the ability to adjust the audio channels independently, buy an inexpensive home theater system that allows adjusting each channel individually and proceed as above. This will definitely improve intelligibility, since most flat-screen TVs include dreadful speakers that muddy the sound quality and/or make it thin and tinny.

Radio recommendation. Here's another question: "I need some help finding the right FM antenna. I have my den in the basement (walkout) of my house. I guess it is my 'man cave.' I have trees around my house and would like to get an FM antenna. How tall would it need to be? What brands do you like? Would it also help my AM reception or would I need a separate antenna?"

You can find a basic FM antenna at Radio Shack or online. They are fairly inexpensive and all about the same quality, so there are no special brands. Ideally it should be at least in the attic, preferably on the roof of your house.

I recommend one that is omni-directional so that it picks up stations from all directions.

I'll comment on AM antennas in a future column, but they are very different from FM.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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