Hear, hear…just not on televised hockey

It was my good fortune to hire Chris Cuthbert for his first major-market sportscasting job, four decades ago in Montreal. He would readily acknowledge not having the classic “big pipes” (nor did his boss) that used to be the pre-requisite for breaking into the broadcast industry.

So when you throw a lot of extraneous noise into the mix, less-than-powerful voices can be hard to hear…even if you’re not hard of hearing. For me, the theory has been that “crowd noise” drowns out announcers. Crowd noise used to be transmitted by variations of parabolic microphones, which from my experiences looked like plastic satellite dishes strategically positioned to project the atmosphere of fans who were encouraged on the scoreboard to “make noise.”

Cuthbert, hockey’s premier play-by-play announcer, probably earned about $25,000 when he broke into the big-city world of sportscasting, because that’s all our sports department budget could handle. He probably makes 20 times that today — financial rewards that he earns just as he did in Montreal. Such an investment in talent like his leads me to ask the question to which I have no answer:

Why would Sportsnet/Hockey Night in Canada pay a gifted announcer with a lifetime of expertise so much money to tell you what’s happening, and then make it challenging to hear him? For the Stanley Cup Final, the game’s television showcase, you’d think it might be better. Such was not the case.

For years, I’ve believed this was the work of TV’s noisemaker managers, obsessed with wanting viewers to experience what it sounds like in the arena where a game’s being played. Clearly, the noisemaker managers are not listeners. To uneducated technocrats like me, this is not rocket science. Turn down the volume on whatever today’s parabolic mic is because when the whistle blows and the crowd is somewhat silent, the expertise of Cuthbert and analyst Craig Simpson is easy to hear.

However, I may be wrong.

At the risk of going beyond my technical expertise — and that’s a short trip — I discovered this week that modern (?) technology includes something that “measures loudness” of a whole show and not just the announcing part. The old, outdated (?) technology used to analyze the loudness of the announcers’ dialogue; in other words the volume levels were established by how loud their voices were. It’s called LKFS: “Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale”…whatever that means.

The new technology, or algorithm, measures sets the noise level by whatever is loudest. So when the fans do as instructed and make excessive noise, or somebody blows a horn or unloads a piercing scream, or the in-house sound system is deafening, that is the measure of loudness.

Everything else suffers, starting with dialogue.

And just to rub in more decibels, TV’s sound geniuses play an annoying bed of music when showing replays between periods, while the studio “experts” are diagnosing what viewers are watching. Again, they’re being paid a lot not to be heard.

Another solution is closed captioning. Instead of not hearing the announcers, you could read what they said 30 to 60 seconds after they said it.

Neither being hard to hear nor being subtitled would be acceptable to a pro like Chris Cuthbert.