Legislator Wants to Outlaw Loud TV Commercials

June 9, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO: A bill to outlaw loud commercials is getting a hearing on Capital Hill tomorrow. The House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet will hear about H.R. 1084, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act. IT would require the FCC “to prescribe a standard to preclude commercials from being broadcast at louder volumes than the program material they accompany.”

The CALM Act was introduced last summer but was never scheduled in committee. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) reintroduced it in the current Congress in February. It directs the FCC to regulate volume within a year of its enactment.

“Most Americans are not overjoyed to watch television commercials, but they are willing to tolerate them to sustain free over-the-air television. What annoys all of us is the sudden increase of volume when commercials are aired,” Eshoo’s Web site states. “This legislation will reduce the volume of commercials in order to bring them to same level as the programs they accompany.”

The three-part bill instructs the commission to enjoin commercials from being “excessively noisy or strident;” and from having modulation and loudness levels that “substantially” exceed the accompanying programming.

Of the bill’s 21 co-sponsors, only three are members of the subcommittee, though one is its chairman, Rick Boucher of Virginia.

The FCC already regulates broadcast audio in terms of dialogue normalization, but does not set a specific value. The major networks have set in-house values, but even so, it’s nearly impossible to ride herd on audio from the point of production on through a set of three-inch TV speakers.

Broadcasters themselves have no control over how levelers in cable set-top boxes are set, and they’re reluctant to mess with advertiser audio, what with the virtual collapse of the market and all. Most do actually request commercials mixed at certain levels, but it’s unlikely that a paying customer’s last-minute hot mix will be turned away. There’s also the effect of content shift, e.g., from a quiet, dramatic moment to a strident El Pollo Loco refrain.

Television Broadcast covered some of the challenges inherent in broadcast audio in “5.1 Takes More than Serendipity,” a look at NBC’s surround-sound broadcast of the 2008 Summer Olympics Games. In “Can You Hear Me Now?” CBS’s Bob Seidel points out some of the shortcomings of dialnorm.

Loudness levels are but one issue vexing broadcast audio; lip-sync is of greater concern. The digital TV standard separates audio from video, and the two frequently don’t arrive simultaneously to TV sets. Several trade and technical organizations are currently working on standards to eliminate lip-sync errors. – Deborah D. McAdams

(Image by Will Murphy

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