If there’s one question about reality TV that comes up with increasing frequency, it’s this: Why is this reality show’s background music so loud? Why can’t I hear the dialogue over all this clamor?
Frequent Google search shows include “Why is the background music on Netflix so loud?”, “Why is the background music louder than the voices on my TV?”, “Is there a way to lower background music on TV?”
I answered a similar question four years ago, pointing out that a lot of that noise is added in post-production, like America’s Got Talent’s fake crowd cheering noises.
National Geographic Channel’s Life Below Zero is one of the shows that frequently prompts this complaint—both the original show, and it’s spin-offs, such as Life Below Zero: Next Generation and Life Below Zero: First Alaskans.
So when I interviewed Life Below Zero showrunner Joseph Litzinger recently, the last question I asked was this:
I’m asking you on behalf of all the people who won’t stop e-mailing me that they can’t hear people talking, because the music and sound effects are too loud! So, Joe, can you tell me why the music is so loud, and why people can’t hear the [cast] talking?
We laughed, but he also gave a very thoughtful and detailed answer. “It’s such a great question!” he began. “That is a very common complaint.”
So, is there an easy answer? “The honest answer is we don’t know, but we are seriously looking into it,” Litzinger told me.
Those investigations include personal field testing. “I’m going to my parents house to test how they’re listening to it. I’m going to a friend’s house to watch it,” he told me.
“I’m trying to figure out: Are the people who are complaining at watching it on Disney+, or on Nat Geo? I’m comparing it to other NatGeo shows,” he added. “It is a very common complaint—so much that it has risen to: We’re going to figure it out.”
What Life Below Zero’s producer suspects is responsible
Life Below Zero’s use of music, he said, is trying to create “an immersive environment, and to balance sound effects with the environment, with what people are saying. But I think probably some sort of technical issue which has to do with the 5.1 mixing versus stereo mixing.”
Basically, that means Life Below Zero is designing its audio for surround sound systems with five speakers and one subwoofer. In such systems, dialogue usually is mixed to come from that center speaker, and can be drowned out by music on the other speakers, though that can be adjusted.
However, if you don’t have surround sound, but just audio from a TV with stereo speakers, that’s obviously going to create a problem. And it’s a problem Life Below Zero’s showrunner has, too.
“I love TV. I don’t have 5.1,” Litzinger told me. “I think what happens is that we mix with basically five speakers, and it gets crushed and then flattened and broadcast back out in a way that—depending upon where you are in your house, and where you’re how you’re hearing it—it’s not sounding as good as as intended.”
You might be able to adjust your own sound, but of course, this is an issue the reality TV—and regular TV—industry needs to figure out.
But if this bothers you, know that you have at least one ally on your side in Life Below Zero’s executive producer. “We hear you, and we are looking into that common, common complaint,” Litzinger said. “Of course we want people to hear the show.”