Of all the mysteries of life – the Egyptian pyramids, the Zimbabwe ruins, the cold virus and the Koeberg Interchange in Cape Town – there is no greater conundrum than that high-tech quirk of modern times that causes television commercials to be broadcast as loudly as 10 000 pissed off vuvuzelas.
Ever since the first television commercial was broadcast in South Africa 37 years ago – it was for a hamburger and went something like “made from 100% pure beeef…” – nearly bursting my eardrums, I’ve have made it my mission in life to find the cause of this phenomenon.
I have done this privately by phoning up the whizziest of whiz kids at the SABC and been greeted with “havenafokenclue”.
I have also done it publicly on radio, asking the most august broadcast fundis in the land and have once again been greeted with “havenafokenclue.”
It would have remained a total mystery if I hadn’t chanced upon a five-year-old street kid who, for a couple of rands and yesterday’s ham sandwich, fixed things like cellphones, laptop computers and guided missile homing devices in an effort to eke out a living.
“Audio compression,” he said, before disappearing into a dark alley with my cellphone, which wasn’t broken but which happened to be lying on the passenger seat of my car. Apparently in South African city centres right now this appears to be taken as, “Good morning, please help yourself to my cellphone and redistribute it at your pleasure.”
Anyway, he disappeared before I could get anything more than “audio compression”.
This vital clue in hand, my quest took me back once more to a variety of technical boffins. After a litany of “havenafokenclues”, I did manage to get snippets of information here and there that lead me to the conclusion that audio compression was something to which the producers of television commercials had to subject their final product in order to make it work properly when the technical wallahs at the TV station hit the ‘play’ button.
This essential but unfortunate prerequisite for having your ad played on telly results in the commercial uncompressing and going BANG!
Not in one fell swoop mind, but going BANG! over a period of 30 seconds to a minute.
Frankly, in this day and age of modern technology when sending men to the moon is by no means any big deal or twiddling a few buttons on your cellphone in Johannesburg to read the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before any self-respecting Frankfurter has even got out of bed, one would think that it would be chickenfeed to come up with a goodie that can stop television commercials going BANG! I mean, doing this lopped another R2 billion off the combined resources of the country’s medical aid schemes as millions of viewers stream to their ear, nose and throat specialist to have their ear drums moved from their hiding places behind epiglotti and put back where they belong.
Surely it is possible to stick a note up on the master monitor in a TV station’s main control room? Something saying; “Oi, before inserting cassettes with ads on them, turn that little knob marked ‘volume’ anti-clockwise, ie: to the left…”
On the other hand, advertisers who do not want to continue offending their target market by literally walloping them on the earhole every time they want to tell them something, could insist that everyone involved in the production of their television commercials does not think of the process as producing a television commercial. They should all wander about saying “this is a soapie, this is a soapie”.
Then, before they deliver the finished product to the television station they could write on the envelope “No audio compression necessary – this is a soapie… a very short soapie that should be broadcast instead of the 60 second HurlBurger ad…”
Of course, I have wanted to ask why it is that commercials have to undergo audio compression when other programmes don’t, but I am simply not in the mood for another million “havenafokenclues”.
I suspect however, that the problem lies somewhere within the way television ads are conceived. In order to be different, most creative teams concoct commercials that are initially the length of the uncut version of the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’.
When clients say they can’t afford the trillions of rands for so mammoth a production, the ad is cut to roughly the length of an episode of ‘Isidingo’ and when that is still found to be too expensive it is cut to about the length of the news. They then can’t cut any more without completely losing the plot so to get it from 30 minutes to 30 seconds they stick it in the audio compression machine and, hey presto!
Which is why nine out of 10 television commercials make absolutely no sense at all. On the other hand of course, this whole audio compression theory could be a myth and the reason TV commercials come across so loud is simply to wake you up to watch them.
This story was first published in the February 2014 issue of The Media magazine.