Are TV Ads Too Loud? (I have an idea)

This little article was published in yesterday’s Parade insert in our newspaper – and was one of the front page teasers, no less.

Are TV Ads Too Loud |
Are TV Ads Too Loud?
Loud television commercials for everything from used cars to pet supplies have been invading America’s living rooms since the 1960s. Now, some lawmakers want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do something about it.

“It’s enough to blast you off the sofa when some of these ads come on,” says Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.). “It’s a source of irritation to people when they’re relaxing in their own home. For decades, there have been complaints and investigations by the FCC, but nothing has ever been done about it.” Eshoo recently introduced the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act. If passed, it would require the FCC to set new limits on the volume of commercials.

The FCC has no official position on the bill but suggests that consumers simply use their remote controls to keep volume levels consistent. David Perry, head of television production at advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, says legislation isn’t necessary since new televisions are equipped with technology that can easily mitigate the problem. He notes that commercials are only as loud as the noisiest part of a program but admits that they can be jarring when they follow quieter moments in a show.

Still, consumer advocates say viewers should not need the latest technology to avoid the annoyance of shouting pitchmen. “Advertisers simply do not have a right to scream at consumers in their living rooms,” says Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst at Consumers Union. He calls the CALM Act “ a commonsense solution to a 45-year consumer complaint.”

— J. Scott Orr

It seems the complaint is that advertisers should not have the right to force their way into your home, without your consent and try to get your attention (by “screaming”), while you are relaxing by consuming entertainment created for your benefit at no cost or inconvenience to you.  Perhaps we should pay a government entity to create programming for us to watch?  Perhaps all shows should be pay-per-view?   Maybe we could discontinue broadcast television and pay the creators of TV programming through our cable and satellite providers (isn’t it expensive enough already)?


 If the screaming bothers you, I have an Idea – turn it off.  Hint: it works for the radio too.

By the way, the commercials really are louder – in a sense.  The peak audio is already limited.  However, the audio track in an advertisement is often manipulated in a number of ways to make it seem louder.  For example, they can increase the amplitude of the entire track, then clip the peaks to fit within the allowed maximum.  This results in a “fuller” waveform.

Herb Weisbaum answers this question in his column at MSNBC:

Why is it that TV stations are permitted to raise the volume during the commercials? I find it very aggravating.

LiveScience addresses the CALM bill here and includes this analogy:

Analyzing the sounds that accompany a television program or commercial is like spending a day at the beach watching the waves roll in. If asked how the waves were that day, a beachgoer could describe the biggest wave of the day or average all of the waves — big and small.

The Federal Communications Commission — the government agency that regulates the radio, television and cable industries — limits only the size of the biggest sound wave, the “peak level” of the sound. Under FCC rules, the peak of a commercial can be no higher than the programming it accompanies.

The problem with this approach is that the peak level of the sound does not accurately reflect how loud something sounds to the listener. Our brains judge loudness by averaging all of the waves that roll by — big and small.

I really wanted to find a cool graph showing this (I have one locked in my head).  Here’s the closest I could find, from the wikipedia article on Dynamic Range Compression.

Dynamic Range Compression


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