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Congress considers shushing loud TV ads

The House and Senate have passed legislation requiring commercials to be no louder than the shows they accompany. It's not a huge issue, but viewers tired of having their ears blasted need some relief.

October 08, 2010|David Lazarus

Our political leaders clearly have bigger fish to fry than whether your TV yells at you during commercial breaks.

But legislation that was approved by the Senate before lawmakers scurried off this week to seek reelection represents a good example of what our elected officials need to do when an industry just can't find the wherewithal to act in consumers' best interests.

The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM Act, would require TV stations and cable channels to turn down the volume on those decibel-heavy ads that blast from the box during breaks.

A related bill has already passed in the House of Representatives. Once lawmakers get back to business after the Nov. 2 midterm elections, they'll sit down and address a handful of minor differences before sending the legislation to President Obama for his signature.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who introduced the legislation in the House last year and has been its prime mover on Capitol Hill, told me she knows the issue of TV loudness pales in comparison with such matters as the high unemployment rate or healthcare reform.

"I never promised that this bill would solve every challenge the country is facing," she said. "But this is one of those things that's a source of irritation for everyone. You have the TV on, and commercials will blast you off the sofa."

Eshoo said the CALM Act is one of the most politically popular bills she's ever introduced. "When I would mention it to other members of Congress, they would immediately tell me they were interested in co-sponsoring," she said.

I stopped by a Best Buy in West Los Angeles to see how consumers felt about too-noisy commercials. No surprise: Every single person I encountered amid the banks of fancy flat-panel TVs agreed they're a huge annoyance.

"I'll be watching a movie or whatever, and suddenly the TV starts screaming," said Eric Lafayette, 60. "It's a hassle. I have to quickly lower the volume so I don't wake the neighbors, and then I have to turn it up again."

Like most people I encountered, Mike McNamara, 53, hadn't heard about the CALM Act. I asked if he thought this was the kind of issue Congress should be tackling.

"That would be great," he said without hesitation. "I hate it when the commercials start blaring at you."

A Best Buy salesman, Sako Aiwazian, said some TVs are equipped with software that supposedly recognizes higher commercial noise levels and temporarily turns down the volume. But he said the technology is inconsistent at best.

"People ask about it," Aiwazian said. "We have to disappoint them. It doesn't always work."

Even though high-decibel commercials have been one of the top complaints to the Federal Communications Commission for years, the broadcasting industry has long maintained that the ads only seemed louder than regular programming.

They would say that advertisers were merely keeping the entire commercial at the high end of permissible limits, as opposed to actual programs, which would feature a wider range of sounds.

Independent studies tended to back up the broadcasters. But even though decibels might stay within official limits, the deliberate clustering of noisy sounds in commercials gives the ear a sense of perceived loudness, especially if the commercial follows a relatively quiet scene in a movie or TV show.

That contrast creates an impression of greater volume and thus serves to grab viewers' attention — a phenomenon that wasn't lost on broadcasters.

In any case, once broadcasters realized that Congress was taking an interest, they changed their tune. They adopted voluntary guidelines last year intended to address the noise problem.

"The fact that we adopted guidelines is an acknowledgement that we know this is an issue," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters. "It's something that folks in our industry are aware of."

Too late. After decades of consumer complaints and industry denials, lawmakers have stepped in. Now those voluntary guidelines are poised to become the law of the land.

"Compared to many of the other issues we face, it's hard to see this as very important," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who spearheaded the CALM Act in the Senate. "But if we can remove a little stress from people's lives, that's a good thing."

The bill requires broadcasters to ensure that commercials are no louder than the program they accompany. Under the Senate version, broadcasters and cable operators would have a year after the law's adoption to comply.

Smaller stations and cable operators would be able to get another year or so if installing necessary equipment would create a financial hardship.

So now that lawmakers have addressed the noisy-commercial problem, what might they go after next? Here are some thoughts:

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