Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turning Down the Volume

Now this is good timing. On Tuesday, the FCC passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM), which tells broadcasters that television ads now have to be played at the same volume as the shows that they're running with. Say goodbye to those noticeably louder, overbearing commercials that regularly send viewers scrambling for the remote control. You can thank the representative from Menlo Park, Anna Eshoo, for writing up the bill and Senator John Wicker for shepherding it through Congress last year. The rules won't be totally implemented until next December, but I'm glad to see that one particularly obnoxious aspect of TV ads is finally being addressed. It's a bit late for me, since I killed the TV, but I'm glad for everyone else's ears. And I get to write a quick follow-up to my previous post about quashing TV ads.

The battle over the volume of TV ads has been going on for ages. I first became aware of it about ten years ago, when a little service called ReplayTV was making waves. It was a subscription DVR service similar to TiVo, which had a couple of features that many TV companies objected to. One was the ability to share recorded shows with other ReplayTV subscribers. The other, was "Commercial Advance," which allowed viewers to watch recorded shows without the commercials. ReplayTV would cut them out automatically, simply by detecting the tell-tale rise in volume whenever a show went to commercial. Turning down the ads a few decibels would have rendered the feature unusable, but instead, there were lawsuits, ReplayTV filed for bankruptcy, and soon TiVo took over the DVR market.

Since then, we've seen the introduction of several new gadgets and built-in TV features designed to mitigate the loudness of ads, using sound-leveling technology like Dolby Volume and SRS TruVolume. There has been some debate over whether these really do much good or not. But clearly there is an ongoing issue with the loud ads, that consumer electronics makers recognize and have been happy to tackle on the receiving end. The real problem, however, is with the television broadcasters who control the volume knob on the transmission end. They don't want to admit there's a problem at all, even though according to this TIME article, TV stations have been getting complaints about the excessive volume since the 60s.

The common tactic in dealing with complaints has been to deny the ads are any louder than the programs they run with, which is usually true. Technically. Commercials currently aren't supposed to be run any louder than the peak volume of a particular program - think gunshots, screams, and explosions. However, thanks to fiddling with compression levels, the range of volume in a commercial is much narrower, and concentrated toward the loud end of the audio spectrum. The new rules will require that the levels match the average of the program instead, which is much easier to monitor and enforce now.

Of course, it's no mystery why TV ads are so loud in the first place. The advertisers want them loud so that viewers will be briefly jolted out of our vegetative TV-watching states to pay attention to whatever they're trying to hawk. I wonder if this really works though. Blaring ads just seem to cause many viewers to change channels. And I expect most people have developed the same Pavlovian response that I have, and tend to tune out whenever the volume increases. Maybe turning the sound down will actually help advertisers. I used to mute commercials, which may have actually caused me to pay more attention to them, to make sure I turned the sound back on after they were over.

I've already heard some grumbling and complaints from various corners about how this regulation is a waste of time, and how the volume of our television commercials is unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Surely the efforts of the FCC could be directed to more useful purposes? Well yes, but this is one of the rare wins for consumers over the media companies, and it does suggest that our legislators can be prodded to take action on similar issues. And you can't tell me that everyone hasn't been hit by one of these disruptive advertisement blasts at some point. It may be a minor annoyance, but it's a pervasive one and it's been steadily getting worse.

Besides, the TV stations can still play the commercials just as loud as they did before. They just have to play the programs we actually want to watch at the same volume, and give a little control back to the viewers.

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