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Tuned In: Viewers turn up volume on hearing complaints

Thursday, June 28, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Now hear this: People take their ability to understand what is said on TV seriously.

Complaints, most of them from older viewers, that dialogue on TV gets drowned out by background music led me to write an April column in which a local doctor said this was a common symptom among people with hearing loss. Many readers didn't like that diagnosis.

It's not our hearing, they insisted in letters. It's that darn TV!

That could be. Several viewers who wrote in said they have hearing aids that don't help them understand dialogue any better. Other theories espoused include:

Actors talk too loudly and too fast, or they mumble and don't enunciate.

The sound mixing on TV shows makes matters worse.

It's the TV set.

Ah, the TV set. Could that be the culprit?

Maybe, but TV set manufacturers didn't want to talk about that before I wrote the April column, nor are they eager to defend their products now.

One viewer said she had trouble understanding dialogue on her TV until she switched the setting from stereo to mono. Problem solved.

Another person said a combination of out-of-phase-speakers and a room's acoustics can cause sound to arrive at your ears in a way that allows you to hear the background sound and music, but not to understand what the actors are saying. He pipes his TV's audio through a surround sound system to prevent dialogue from getting lost.

There's yet another possible cause: Local TV stations and cable companies. A local transmitter supervisor wrote in to say "some audio material is heavily compressed via electronic means," which results in a "wall of sound" that diminishes clarity.

The History Channel and A&E were mentioned most often as offenders by people who wrote to me. (Discovery Channel and Lifetime were also targeted.)

"Based on regular internal monitoring and testing, A&E Television Networks is confident the audio for A&E and The History Channel is clean and intelligible as it leaves the origination facility," said Gary Morgenstein, vice president of corporate communications for both cable networks.

Maybe in transmission the sound quality degrades. Maybe it's the cable company's retransmission. Or maybe, given the large number of older viewers who watch these two networks, we return to the hearing loss diagnosis.

Easier and more convenient though it would be, there's no single place to put blame in this sound issue. The causes appear to vary from situation to situation.

Nor is there one cure-all solution to the problem of murky dialogue. But here's one last suggestion made by several readers: If you can't understand the dialogue, turn on your TV's closed captioning.

At war with Wal-Mart

The one-hour PBS program "Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town" (10 p.m. Monday, WQED/WQEX) chronicles the efforts of citizens in Ashland, Va., to keep the big box store out of their community.

It's an absorbing hour that's clearly sympathetic to the opposition, but why shouldn't it be? After all, there's another Wal-Mart that's only a 10-minute drive away.

Anyone who's been to Ashland, located just north of Richmond on I-95, knows the mom-and-pop stores along the town's main thoroughfare make it unique. Wal-Mart could threaten those businesses.

More daunting than what will happen to this town is the program's suggestion about how Wal-Mart is plotting world consumer domination. I'm no anti-consumerism zealot (lately, Best Buy feels like a second home), but "Store Wars" illuminates a simpler, more friendly and hospitable way of life that's quickly disappearing from the American cultural landscape. It's completely foreign to some younger people today.

But even those who know no better would be hard pressed not to feel a longing for an endangered way of life when "Store Wars" visits a grocery store where employees know shoppers by name and regular customers keep a running tab.

Surprising generosity

The first time I heard Channel 11's newest promo, I did a double take but remained unconvinced of what I heard. It took seeing and hearing it two more times before I was sure.

"There are three good news stations in town," the announcer says. "But only one can be named the best."

Then it goes on to tout the awards WPXI won in the recent Associated Press broadcast competition, a contest KDKA and WTAE didn't enter.

Of course the spot is self-serving -- that's to be expected. What's shocking is that it acknowledges KDKA and WTAE exist and describes them as having good news operations.

Channel 11 has typically stayed out of the war of words other stations descend to, but the genial attitude in its latest promo remains a pleasant shock to the system.

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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