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Friday, October 9, 2009

Hit the mute! Why TV commercials are so loud, and how that may change

Annoyingly loud TV commercials are like the weather. Everyone complains about them, but no one does anything about them. Except that lately, someone is doing something about it. Several someones, in fact. After decades of neglect, the issue is finally getting so much attention that the familiar explosion of noise signaling the start of a commercial pod could soon be a thing of the past.

The fight against excessive commercial volume has two fronts, legislative and technological. The first line of defense on the legal side is the Federal Communications Commission, which mandates that commercials can be no louder than the loudest parts of the programming they accompany.

But this approach has serious limitations. An action show that climaxes in a burst of gunfire is one thing; a commercial that's as loud as a gun going off from start to finish is another -- especially if the lead-in to the commercial is relatively quiet. And in addition to making their commercials as loud as the FCC lets them, marketers also use various technological tricks to make them sound even louder than they are, like packing more sound energy into midrange frequencies, the ones that the human ear is most sensitive to.

To close this loophole, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives last year, the Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation Act. CALM would charge the FCC to enact regulations prohibiting commercials from being "excessively noisy or strident." The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing to consider amendments on the bill Thursday.

And a parallel effort within the TV and consumer-electronics industries may also bear fruit soon. The Advanced Television Systems Committee, a nonprofit whose membership includes broadcast networks, cable operators, and electronics manufacturers, has been working to develop voluntary standards that will let broadcasters measure and effectively modulate the volume of commercials.

"We've been working for over two years to help broadcasters, cable operators, and others come up with a uniform strategy so we can minimize the subjective perception of the volume changing during commercials," Mark Richer, the group's president, tells DailyFinance. "Our experts have developed what we call a recommended practice, which provides guidance to broadcasters and others on how to use our standard in a way that will minimize the 'audio loudness differential,' let's call it, that is bothersome to many people. It's a little more complicated than you would think, and getting everybody to agree on how to do it was not easy."

This week, ATSC will send a ballot to about 190 members seeking approval of the recommendations. Richer expects it to pass within 30 days.

But consumers who don't wish to bet their delicate eardrums on legislation or self-regulation already have some options, and soon they'll have more. TV sets featuring Dolby Volume, a technology that automatically flattens out the sound spikes of commercials, have been on the market for two years. They'll soon be joined by a device called SRS TruVolume, a gadget that performs much the same function while claiming to offer some advantages over Dolby Volume -- above all, distinguishing between commercials and programming, and suppressing the sound levels of the former without affecting the latter.