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Background too loud? It may be hearing

Thursday, April 26, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Complaints about television arrive at my desk every day by e-mail, telephone and letter, and there are some definite trends. One of the top complaints I hear is about the sound level of background noise on TV programs.

One letter last fall suggested music during a History channel documentary was out of place because "in France and Germany when the bombs were falling there was no musical background."

A recent caller complained that background music drowns out dialogue.

There's a common thread to these criticisms; they come from older viewers.

Dr. Catherine Palmer, director of audiology and hearing aids at UPMC and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said she frequently gets similar complaints about television.

She said the most common type of hearing loss is one of sensitivity to certain frequencies. She said many people with hearing loss continue to hear low frequencies -- the background music -- but often have trouble hearing high frequencies, which make up much of the dialogue.

"You don't lose them together, you slowly lose some frequencies more than others," Palmer said. "A common complaint in an aging person is, 'I can hear, but I can't understand what they're saying.' "

Palmer said that's because their low-frequency hearing remains good but the high-frequency hearing has deteriorated. High-frequency hearing gives clarity to speech.

She recently attended a national conference of hearing specialists, and a colleague made an observation that the importance of consonants can be seen in "Wheel of Fortune."

"If you've ever wondered how important consonants are, watch 'Wheel of Fortune.' Consonants are what people spend money and energy on. As soon as they have the consonants, they get the word," Palmer said. "It's the same in hearing. And it's one of those bad jokes in life that consonants are what we need for understanding and hearing, and that's exactly what we lose due to aging and noise exposure."

Palmer said people are often able to understand what's going on even if they don't hear the words, thanks to context clues or seeing the movement of lips. But recently she's heard from many viewers who complain that they can't follow the rapid-fire dialogue on NBC's "The West Wing."

Scenes in chief of staff Leo McGarry's office, where it's usually dark, can be difficult because viewers can't see the actors' lips moving. Similarly, if the actors turn away from the camera as they rush down a White House corridor, visual cues are lost.

"A lot of patients have been impacted, and it's gotten them to come in and pursue hearing aids because they love the show so much," Palmer said.

She said British programs also give some viewers fits.

"As soon as you get any accent in there" they can have difficulty, she said.

Palmer suggested viewers try to reduce other noise in their homes while watching television because additional sound only exacerbates problems with background music on TV. She also suggested some viewers might want to consider using headphones to get a clearer audio signal if they're having a specific problem hearing TV. If those troubles extend to other areas of daily life, it might be time to see an audiologist and consider a hearing aid.

Viewers can get a cursory hearing screening test by calling 412-647-2400 and listening for tones of varying frequencies.

WITHER "BUFFY"? Last weekend's news that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will move from The WB to UPN disappoints on so many levels.

Let's start with image. The WB has an identity, a "strong brand" as they say in the business. The WB knows how to market its programs with a savvy style that belies the network's youth.

UPN barely has an identity, and what it has is tied to wrestling and the worst "Star Trek" series ever. (A WB publicist said UPN stands for Used Parts Network because of its reliance on castoffs from other networks, including "The Hughleys" from ABC and now "Buffy.")

Compare "Buffy's" move to magazine placement on a store shelf. "Buffy" going to UPN is like a magazine that's stacked next to Time or Newsweek that gets moved to the rack with Penthouse and Hustler.

"Buffy" will gussy up UPN quality-wise, but will UPN taint "Buffy"? "Buffy" is a smart show. The smartest show UPN had in the past year, Tom Fontana's "The Beat," got canceled for not attracting enough viewers.

UPN reaches 5 million fewer homes than The WB. Last week, 4.3 million viewers tuned in to see a new "Buffy" episode on The WB.

The future of spin-off series "Angel" also remains up in the air. If The WB cancels it out of spite, UPN has promised to pick it up. But if The WB keeps the show, the chances of future crossovers to "Buffy" will likely disappear.

And there's another show left hanging in the balance. In January, WB honcho Jamie Kellner intimated that The WB might cancel "Roswell" as retaliation for the loss of "Buffy." Like "Buffy" and "Angel," "Roswell" is produced by Fox.

I suppose UPN could pick up "Roswell" too, but with a "Buffy"-bloated prime time budget, that seems like a long shot.

So who's to blame? Some will point the finger at The WB for behaving like a cheapskate. Others will blame Fox for playing favorites and choosing UPN, which Fox may soon have a financial stake in.

I choose to blame the government for reckless deregulation that now allows networks to own their own series. There was greater competition for shows when the networks had to buy programs from outside suppliers. In a deregulated TV universe, we're inching perilously close to the ultimate in vertical integration, when the only shows on ABC will be produced by Disney, Fox will make shows for Fox (and UPN), Viacom will produce exclusively for CBS and UPN and Warner Bros. will make shows only for The WB. (NBC remains stubbornly unaligned with a studio.)

It could be argued that vertical integration improves the odds that low-rated shows will stay on the air because the networks have an ownership stake in them. But it's a double-edged sword. In time we'll know whether that sword swings "Buffy's" way or fatally wounds the series.

DEBATE: PCNC will air a live debate between mayoral candidates Tom Murphy and Bob O'Connor tomorrow from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. WPXI anchor David Johnson will host the program.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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