You're serenely watching your favorite TV show when it abruptly cuts to a commercial for a local car dealership loudly hawking a sale. The sudden change in volume—markedly higher than on the show you've been watching—gives you heart palpitations.
It's a consumer complaint that dates back 45 years, and Consumers Union (our nonprofit publisher) has taken up the banner of keeping the ad noise down. Joel Kelsey, an advocate and policy analyst in CU's D.C. office, testified [PDF] before the House Energy and Commerce committee in support of the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM act. (Don't you just love government acronyms?)
The FCC's current broadcasting guidelines have no volume restrictions. The agency claims that "perceived loudness" of TV broadcasts is "a subjective judgment" that varies with the type of ad. It also says it has found no evidence that volume is deliberately raised for commercials.
However, under CALM, introduced by Rep. Anna G.Eshoo [D-CA-14], ads cannot exceed the sound level of the loudest portion of the particular TV show in which they're placed. And that loudest allowable volume can't be sustained for the entire length of the commercial.
So, let's say you're watching a cop show which has moments of quiet dialog, and then one or two wild car-chase scenes with loud gunfire and tires squealing. Any commercial spot shown in that hour-long drama can't be louder than those gunshots, and it can equal that volume only in small doses: the entire 30- or 60-second pitch can’t be as annoyingly loud as those squealing tires.
"We believe this widespread consumer issue is a result of more than just the arbitrary, or subjective, perception of consumers. Rather, it is a real consumer grievance that deserves a new approach in the new era of digital communications," said Kelsey.
In addition to our headquarters and testing center in Yonkers, N.Y., Consumers Union has three branch offices in Washington D.C., Houston, and San Francisco dedicated to consumer advocacy on a range of issues, from communications to health care to food and product safety. To see what our advocates are up, check out the Consumers Union web site and, for telecommunications matters, hearusnow.org. —Nick K. Mandle and Will Dilella