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Turning down the volume on TV commercials

The CALM Act, introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, takes aim at loud advertisements. Critics of the bill say Congress has better things to worry about.

December 14, 2009|By Richard Simon

Reporting from Washington — Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) wanted advertisers to hear her loud and clear. So she introduced the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation -- or CALM -- Act, aimed at lowering the volume on televised sales pitches.

"In my 17 years in the House of Representatives, I've never carried a bill which has been received with so much enthusiasm," Eshoo said. "Only the do-not-call list has even come close."

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, who supports the legislation, said, "All of us have had the experience of enjoying a favorite program only to find ourselves scrambling to locate the remote control when, at the commercial break, the volume of the television seemingly doubles."

But the legislation, which recently cleared a House committee, also is generating boisterous criticism.

"I think there is a certain contract when one decides to watch broadcast television that you're going to be sold stuff in annoying ways," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"I just don't think it's bothering that many people that much," he said.

And some question whether the problem is serious enough to warrant congressional intervention.

Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, the regulation-wary top Republican on the House committee that oversees telecommunications, asked rhetorically, "If we're going to dictate the noise level . . . what about commercials that advertise products that we don't particularly care for?"

Loud ads have been a source of complaints since at least the 1960s, said Joel Kelsey of the Washington office of Consumers Union. "Advertisers simply do not have a right to scream at consumers in their living rooms."

In a statement, Eshoo said that "a TV program has a mix of audio levels. There are loud and soft parts. Nuance is used to build the dramatic effect. Most advertisers don't want nuance. They want to grab our attention, and to do this, they record every part of it as loud as possible."

Her legislation, expected to go to the full House before the end of the year, would give the Federal Communications Commission authority to enforce standards aimed at preventing loud TV ads.

The bill is among a spate of measures introduced in response to complaints about what's being broadcast. Currently pending are measures to restrict junk food advertising in response to childhood obesity and to prohibit commercials for erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

"This is not the be-all-and-end-all legislation when it comes to the problems that we have," Eshoo said at a recent hearing. But, she told colleagues, "your constituents will thank you" for supporting it.

So far, the bill has drawn 90 cosponsors.

And a version of the legislation was introduced in the Senate last week.

But Barton, suggesting Congress had better things to do, said sarcastically: "In this spirit of things that annoy us, I'd like Congresswoman Eshoo to introduce a bill soon to repeal the excessive-celebration rule in sports. It just really irritates me when my team scores a touchdown and they get penalized because they hold the football up."

Mark S. Richer, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, which sets voluntary standards for digital television, said the industry had come up with a standard -- widely supported by broadcast and cable companies -- that is "starting to minimize the problem."

Even before the legislation gained momentum, he said, officials were working to address the problem.

"A lot of people in this industry hear about this issue from their family and friends all the time," he said.

And Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of government relations for the Assn. of National Advertisers, said it was in advertisers' self-interest to address complaints -- because "you do not want to be offending those who you're trying to sell to."

richard.simon@latimes.com

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