The Mailbag: Hey PBS, Turn the Music Down

Posted by Michael Getler on

There was a lot of mail last week about several different issues and programs, and I will get to them in the next few days. But first, a very quick posting about an unusual topic.

A viewer in Portland, Ore., wrote to me last week and said this: “I couldn't find a better contact for my comments on the Cancer series beginning tonight [March 30]. I watched about 40 minutes and couldn't stand to watch more because of the non-stop, obnoxious, heavy-handed music. In all that time there was maybe a total of two, music-less minutes. It was loud, repetitive, and over-dramatic. The music overwhelmed and dominated the narration and the interviews. What a waste of what seemed to be an otherwise excellent program.”

On Monday, a viewer in Pennsylvania called with the same complaint, not just about the Ken Burns cancer series but about other PBS dramas and documentaries on WHYY in Philadelphia. This viewer says she is a devoted fan and supporter of PBS and the local station. But the music is so loud at times, she said, that it drowns out and dominates the narrative, which is what she wants to listen to. Less music, more audible narrative is her suggestion.

Music is not normally an ombudsman’s issue. But these recent comments, in fact, are part of a long-running complaint that I have heard from what would amount to a fair number of viewers over the years if I had kept track. So I can’t say how many viewers or remember all the specific programs. But I know that it has been a steady, annoying drumbeat, if you will, in the background for many people who otherwise enjoy Frontline, documentaries, especially those produced by Burns, Downton Abbey and other drama programs. Frontline, especially, draws steady complaints about too much loud musical background meant as obvious clues to viewers whenever something bad is about to happen.

As it turns out, PBS, not just the ombudsman, does get a lot of calls on this problem, so many that it is one of the “frequently asked questions” on They are fielded by a department called Audience Services and here is what they tell the complaining viewers: “Some audio problems are the result of a difficulty or error that occurred during the program's production. A poor balance between background music and dialogue is usually related to production rather than transmission problems. You can try switching from stereo to mono whenever there is such a problem, or switch off the ‘surround sound’ or ‘enhanced’ feature on your television. These steps tend to assist in counteracting the audio problem.”

If I had to guess, I would say this is not helpful to most of the complainers. So, if anybody at PBS reads this column, my advice would be to make your producers more aware of this problem and get them to do what it takes to dial it back. You don’t have to do away with music in the background, just keep it clearly in the background rather than letting it overshadow what is being said, which is why people watch and listen.

Posted on April 7, 2015 at 4:14 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


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