All is CALM, if not bright

Speaking up for turning down the volume on TV commercials

December 11, 2010

Granted, it is not the most important piece of legislation ever to come out of Washington. But when President Barack Obama signs the CALM Act, probably sometime this month, I will give a muted cheer.

The Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation Act is the latest effort to stop the shouting on television commercials. This is something that the best minds in our nation's capital have been wrestling with for decades. While it seemed obvious to me and the rest of the viewing public that the car dealer screaming "Come on down!" was several decibels louder than the gentle murmurings of the program on whale migration that he interrupted, it turns out that the screecher was playing within the old rules.

Those rules, which the new act will supersede, said that the ads could not exceed the peak loudness of the accompanying program. The key is the word "peak." Almost every television show, short of "Meet the Press," has at least one exceptionally loud moment — a gunshot, a car crash, a screeching member of Congress. (OK, scratch the reference to "Meet the Press.") Anyway, the loudest point became the standard that the shouter had to adhere to. As irritating as the hooting hucksters were, they weren't louder than a gunshot.

Now, thanks to improvements in audio technology and the efforts of California Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo, sponsor of the CALM Act, the new standard will essentially be the average level of noise in the program. So rather than one irritating high point, the car dealer or mattress merchant cannot howl above the show's average level of cacophony.

It will be interesting to see how this works, as some shows (Jerry Springer's catfights come to mind) are on average louder than the "Nightly News with Brian Williams."

Even after President Obama signs it, the Federal Communications Commission has one year to take action, and the affected television providers have another year to comply. Since most of the technology is already in place and the industry is on board, chances are good that television commercials are going to get quieter sooner rather than later.

Yet I have noticed that one reaction to the CALM Act is the denial of the impact television commercials have on us. Both in casual conversations and in comments on websites, I encounter a number of people who claim they don't pay attention to television commercials. They either record programs on their DVRs and zip through the commercials, or hit the mute button when a commercial airs.

Perhaps this growing aversion to commercials is one reason the television industry did not fight the CALM act. As one spokesman for The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, told The New York Times, the television industry believes the key to getting people to watch commercials is to raise the level of creativity — not the volume. We shall see.

I am a major muter. As soon as an ad appears on the screen, I fumble for the silencer. Yet somehow those commercial messages filter through to me. I know the telephone number for that annoying carpet company that sponsors the evening news. I know much more than I should about Sally Field's skeleton. And even though I don't hear the words, I recognize the Ford and Chevy ads when they shimmer on the screen.

I can't escape the insidious power of television commercials, but at least in the future their audio message will be muffled, and that gives me quiet pleasure.

—Rob Kasper

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