by Steve Harvey.
New York--It's been a long time coming, but digital television is finally here. The ATSC digital format replaces the longstanding analog transmission standard on June 12, just one month short of the 13th anniversary of WRAL-HD going on-air with the first public HDTV broadcast in Raleigh, NC.
Advertising agencies and their clients were relatively slow to adopt the ATSC's 5.1-channel audio format, generally reserving surround sound presentation for commercial rollouts during special events such as Super Bowl. But now that a good percentage of viewers across the country have installed 5.1-capable home systems, are commercial spots any more likely to be posted in the surround format?
"I'd say at least 50 percent of our jobs are in 5.1," reports Jeff Fuller, a mixer at Eleven Sound in Santa Monica, CA, where the bulk of the work is national campaigns. Fuller believes that 5.1 projects will only become more frequent from this point forward. "I haven't looked at the numbers lately but with the digital broadcast switchover and everybody getting their hi-def systems hooked up, it's only going to increase," he says.
But there are a number of factors working against a more wholesale adoption of 5.1 in commercial work, not least the relatively slow conversion of TV plants, particularly in smaller markets, to a 6-channel infrastructure. "Locally produced spots up here still tend to be standard def," notes Vince Werner, co-founder and lead engineer at Seattle's Clatter&Din, the only dedicated post facility in the region to be designed from the ground up for surround work. The facility recently relocated, hiring the Russ Berger Design Group to construct two 5.1 post suites in the process.
"The reason we did these rooms is that the tipping point is imminent," Werner continues. "We are doing post on some national spots and those are surround, and we're able to attract and retain some of that work by having these rooms. But I have a hunch the gating factor is the affiliates and what they will take."
Howard Bowler, founder of Hobo Audio in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, has seen some 5.1 work from National Geographic recently, he says, but where commercials are concerned, "We've done a ton of TV spots recently but none of them have requested surround mixes."
Bowler has a different take on the barriers to wider uptake. "One is cost; but I don't think that's the biggest factor." Rather, he says, "The surround experience is a superior experience, but it has to be set up properly on the user end. Once you leave the theatrical realm where it's calibrated, there's no guarantee that what you mix is going to be accurately portrayed at the home. I know in at least one or two cases that [the viewers] have all the speakers against the front wall, so you might as well mix in mono."
Younger viewers, already familiar with 5.1 through video games, may drive demand, he believes, and may be better able to set up a home system correctly: "Younger people are going to be more comfortable with the technology, and they're going to want that experience."
On the subject of calibration, varying deliverable specs from broadcast and cable networks play no small part in militating against a wider adoption of 5.1 in commercials, notes Werner. "Surround is still a bit of the Wild West in terms of deliverables. I use my ears and make it sound good, but I have to mix to this loudness spec. If you watch the promos [that I've mixed to the spec], the announcer is so buried."
Fuller had a similar experience: "I mixed a super-high-profile spot last year where the producer walked in with a spec from the network. It aired and the phone rang the next day and he asked, 'What happened to my spot? I couldn't hear it?' The biggest beef is that there are no set levels. There's got to be something done," he says, noting that some European countries have implemented standardized dialnorm settings.
Plus, he says, "In the past I've had to do different deliverables for each network--NBC got one mix, CBS got a different mix." That means extra cost to the client, again putting the brakes on more widespread 5.1 post production.
There's no denying that 5.1 is more immersive, offers Bowler. "When marketers want to compete and shows are broadcast in surround then they dump back to a stereo mix for the advertisement, you're going to fall out of it a little bit. I think that is a very prime selling point to get advertisers to do surround mixes."
Plus, it's much more fun for the mixer, as Fuller notes, "It's such a wonderful format to be working in. It's a great time to be working in the industry."