Television advertisers ask: CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW!!!

Family televisionThis post addresses something that has bothered me for years. In fact, I blogged about it way back in the late 1990’s. OK, I admit, I didn’t call it a “blog” back then. But I did have a section of what I called my “home page” (aka web site) where I ranted about various things. The topic of this posting was one of them.

Ever notice how television commercials are louder than regular programming? I noticed it and complained about it over 10 years ago and it still bothers me to this day. And lately I’ve been noticing it get worse. A lot worse.

I’ve known about the existence of a weak-assed mythical law or FCC regulation for a long time now that pretends to do something about this problem (but fails miserably). I’ve never been able to actually find a copy of it on the FCC web site, but it allegedly exists. You can find lots of web pages that mention it. Of course, since industry broadcasters probably wrote the damn thing themselves before handing it over to the FCC, the thing is so watered down and weak that it gives them the power to do exactly what they want. (I imagine this is how most attempts by government to regulate big business probably turn out.)

The FCC’s weak rule is this: The peak volume of television advertisements cannot be louder than the peak volume of regular programming. That’s it in a nutshell and it sounds pretty good, right?

Maxell advertisementWrong. It turns out this little rule basically has what I’d call a titanic loophole. Broadcasters simply keep the average volume for regular programming lower than commercials. In this way they can meet the letter of the law while still blasting commercials so loud that they’ll blow your socks off.

By the way, when I’m talking about the FCC, I’m obviously talking about the United States. But other countries have this problem, too. Take Italy, for example, where a 2006 study determined that the volume level of 83% of the ads on their major networks were up to 50 percent higher.

Herb Weisbaum explains it much better than I can:

The Federal Communications Commission does not specifically regulate the volume of TV programs or TV commercials. However, broadcasters are required to have equipment that limits the peak power they can use to send out their audio and video signals. That means the loudest TV commercial will never be any louder than the loudest part of any TV program.

Weisbaum goes on to say:

Most advertisers don’t want nuance. They want to grab your attention. To do that, the audio track is electronically processed to make every part of it as loud as possible within legal limits. “Nothing is allowed to be subtle,” says Brian Dooley, Editor-At-Large for “Everything is loud – the voices, the music and the sound effects.”

So that’s how the evil bastards do it. And, of course, like always, it’s the unholy pursuit of profits at any costs that drives them to do this.

Amazingly, after all this time of doing what they want, something may actually be done about this soon. In a story published just a couple weeks ago, there may actually be an effort underway to reduce the volume of TV ads.

Apparently this effort is prompted by “thousands” of yearly complaints. And the problem affects FM radio as well as “analog TV.”

A technical organization that sets standards for digital TV broadcasters moved forward on Sept. 16 [2009] with new recommendations that may finally dial down the volume of these obnoxious ads.

According to the article any recommendations made by that technical organization must still be approved by broadcasters, so this effort may already be doomed. And even if approved it may be weakened to the point of inane hilarity. But we can hope.

I also wonder what will be done, if anything, about other places where this is a problem. I’m talking about video on the internet and “on demand” with your cable provider. I recently had to watch an episode of Amazing Race on because I had missed the regular broadcast. It was nice to be able to catch up on a show I missed, but the commercials were insanely loud. CBS took the concept of blasting commercials and ramped it up to a whole ‘nother level. It is sort of like trying to open a peanut with a sledgehammer. Yeah, they are just that subtle. I ended up being motivated enough to MUTE every commercial just out of spite. That’ll teach ’em!

Then I noticed the same thing happening with Charter Communication’s “On Demand” service. Just touching the “On Demand” button on the remote control practically doubles the volume. My speakers were so overloaded I could actually hear the static. Of course, Charter is one of the worst companies in the known universe so this didn’t surprise me in the least.

So here’s hoping that somehow, against all odds, the evil frickin’ bastards can be reigned in and forced to toss the consumers that make their existence possible a little bone. I guess in theory, in some parallel universe, maybe in a test tube … it could happen. Naw.

5 responses

  1. I wrote a standup piece about this once.

    It ends up the worst when you’re watching 24, and have to turn the volume WAY up to understand anything Keifer Sutherland says in that super-low, mysterious, raspy voice. Then it turns to the commercial, and it just so happens to start with…




  2. Keifer: WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?!?!?!?!?


    … grabs a hacksaw and cut’s the guy’s head off …

    Yeah, Jack Bauer knows exactly how to fight terrorism.


  3. HEY…

    He does. >_>


  4. One aspect I wanted to play up in my post but forgot was: Is there a difference between what the story calls “analog TV” (not sure what that really means since we’ve since gone digital) and “FM radio” vs. other forms of transmission like cable and internet? If the FCC indeed has a law or regulation pertaining to peak volume, which forms of transmission does it cover? Would it even apply to cable and internet?


  5. […] things, too. Like that you’ll pump up the volume on commercials until our ears bleed. (See: CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW!!!) Subtlety doesn’t count for jack shit when you have the ability to sacrifice my quality of […]


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