Loud Commercials Are Obnoxious. That Doesn't Mean the Government Ought to Regulate TV Ad Volume.


I'm with Berin Szoka on this one: I find TV commercials that manipulate their soundtracks in order blare at volumes far above the actual programming to be incredibly grating and obnoxious. But does that mean we need the government to step in and start overseeing the dynamic range of our TV and cable broadcasts? Hardly. Yet that's just what Rep. Anna Eshoo would have Congress do. As Szoka explains:

Rep. Anna Eshoo's Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act ("CALM Act"—HR 1084) would … require the FCC to issue rules that broadcast and cable TV ads:(1) … shall not be excessively noisy or strident; (2) … shall not be presented at modulation levels substantially higher than the program material that such advertisements accompany; and (3) [their] average maximum loudness…  shall not be substantially higher than the average maximum loudness of the program material that such advertisements accompany.

First of all, it's not necessary. It's easy enough to turn your TV off (or even live without one, as Szoka does). And if that's too arduous, there are various technological solutions from companies like Dolby and SRS that help keep TV volumes on a more even keel. And if you're so enraged at the offending advertisement, it's pretty easy to just quit buying from the company behind. Granted, this is usually less effective in the short run. But reputation matters, and companies can be shamed (or deprived of profit) into behavior that aligns better with their customers' expectations.

But the larger problem is the assumption this grows out of— that government's job is to regulate every minor annoyance out the lives of its citizens. That's bad for government, because it gives it unnecessary power and distracts it from legitimate government activity. It's also worse for citizens, who develop an implicit sense that, when problems arise, the way to fix them is to beg Congress, pass a law, wait for new irritations to arise, then wash, rinse, repeat. And  in the end, I think that's far more grating and obnoxious than a little volume manipulation from advertisers on the idiot box.

NEXT: The Peace Prize Body Count

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What ticks me off is that the cable companies continue to deny that there’s any manipulation of the dynamic levels. They have a sanctioned monopoly, and they can do as they please.

    1. “And if you’re so enraged at the offending advertisement, it’s pretty easy to just quit buying from the company…companies can be shamed (or deprived of profit) into behavior that aligns better with their customers’ expectations.”

      Wrong. Sponsors don’t set the volume levels. Free-market responses are ineffectual in a rigged market. The gag-inspiring “CALM” Act is typical of government intrusion: first they establish the monopoly, then they react to its shortcomings.

  2. You know, it really is difficult to find the mute button for a lot of people. Therefore, this legislation is entirely valid.

    1. I’m a muter, but I’d rather have a button for “volume recall” like the “channel recall,” that switches between two volume levels. I think I like having some sound on during the commercials so I don’t have to keep an eye on the screen to know when the show is back on. I’m easily distrac

      Hey, a bright, shiny thing!

      1. Invent and market a remote that does that. You’ll be a millionaire in short order.

        1. It’s not the remote, it’s about having another storage spot in the TV’s controller and firmware. Though the remote would need a new button or two i guess.

          Like D-Fens said, for many of us multi-taskers, muting it causes you to miss when your program gets back.

          I totally wore out the volume control on my last tv’s remote dealing with commercials. Then i switched to using the mute button till i could replace my circa ’92 sony-box.

          1992 – 2008
          R.I.P. My Old Sony TV

          1. It doesn’t have to be in the TV controller you could easily setup the remote to have a volume downx8 button and a volume upx8. Of course I stopped all commercials years ago with a Tivo.

      2. My stereo has this on a button named “ATT” (attenuate?). I’ve always found it odd that no TVs seem to have it, where it would be more useful.

  3. It’s not all commercials which is weird. I know sound levels are set per the FCC as the commercials are timed into the server they drawn from to go out on air. I have no clue why some are louder than others when all are set to the same max level when timed in. I guess I could ask the better half to explain it to me.

    1. Maybe they’re distorting or compressing the signal on purpose to get more precieved loudess at the same peak. Loud commericals have always struck me as having crappier sound quality than average but I assumed it was just poor audio engineering since the ones that seemed to do it most often within my local cable fiefdom were ones by local businesses on the broadcast channels.

  4. I’ve actually watched as someone times in a taped commercial into the server and sets the oscilloscope along with a little black before and after and sets the white balance* (I think that’s it). I was told there’s an FCC max on the sound and the stations set the commercials to the max when they log them in.

  5. This is obviously, for most, a minor annoyance, especially in the age of the DVR. If any of the commercials are louder, I haven’t noticed, because I don’t bother watching them.

    Which makes this a perfect step off for this point. The more of life’s little annoyances government regulates, the less we, and companies providing us with goods and services, feel responsible. The attitude of the government will, or should handle everything develops.

    A couple months ago I went to a Texas Roadhouse for dinner. They have a ceiling half wall surrounding the bar and some booths to segregate the smoking are from the non-smoking area. We were seated another row over, outside of the smoking area, and the people next to us, towards the bar (outside the smoking area) started smoking. We asked the waitress about it, and she sent the manager over. He appologized, and said that they expanded the smoking section for the night, which while irritating really didn’t bother me, except that we weren’t informed when we were seated. What did, was his next comment that if MO would just regulate it, he wouldn’t be put in this awkward position. He seemed genuinely confused that I didn’t accept his lame buck passing.

  6. F/X has this problem. It’s not the commercials. It’s F/X. Still no need for a law though.

  7. My understanding – but I could be wrong – is that commercial companies manipulate the dynamic range, pushing the volume of their ads to the top. Basically, they take advantage of the fact that networks have to allow for a significant amount of dynamic range (quiet moments on one hand, explosions on the other).

    1. I blame Billy Mays.

  8. I have no clue why some are louder than others when all are set to the same max level when timed in.

    They’re not louder. They just sound that way. Engineer talk is boring, so I’ll just say “apparent volume.”

    Sound guys are smarter than lawyers, and nearly as evil.

  9. They still run commercials?

    Kidding, sort of… Aside from football, I DVR everything else and fast forward through the ads so they don’t bother me in any event.

    1. Yeah, it gets pretty annoying when you’re watching something live. At least with NFL Sunday Ticket, we usually switch from game to game and get as few commercials as possible. Volume is perfect for gametime, but the commercials get really annoying when they blare out of the speakers. I wouldn’t mind having a half-mute button that cuts the volume in half, then restores it.

      But a freaking law?! I’d love to get paid to test the “average loudness” of programming and compare it to the “average loudness” of commercials. Where do I sign up for this?

    2. Same here, although I take it one step further, and DVR the games too. I FF through the huddles, all timeouts, and halftime.

      I have no interest in what the talking heads are saying anyway, and it’s a real time saver to turn a 3 1/2 FB game into 1 hour.

  10. # On your TiVo remote, key in the following sequence:
    select play select 3 0 select

    # If you’ve successfully entered the code, you should hear three “bings” in succession to let you know that you’ve successfully enabled the 30 second skip feature.

    # The skip-to-hash button on your remote will now skip forward 30 seconds during playback.

  11. I was just thinking about this Tuesday. I was home sick and in the morning I was just flipping channels. I noticed there were an unusual number of blaring ads on the weekday morning. Pretty much all of them were for crap the elderly buy. It dawned on me then, they crank ’em up so grandma Tilly can hear it. I’m not sure what good a boycott would do. I already deprive the reverse mortgage company, Rascal Scooter, and “di-a-bee-tus” testing supply people of my hard earned money. But if it bothers you that much turn it off, better yet DVR the shit and skip the ads.

    Legislating away petty annoyances of a freely chosen activity? Is there anything Congress can’t do??

    P.S. If Billy Mays were still here he wouldn’t stand for this shit!

    1. Actually, your explanation makes no sense. Presumably, grandma Tilly would already have the volume on the TV up so she can hear what’s being said on The Price is Right or whatever daytime show she was watching.

  12. Actually, I was just thinking how annyoying this shit was last night. Watching Fringe (real quite), commericals REAL loud. The big problem though, is that there are other people in the house sleeping, so every time we go to a commerical it gets loud.

    Also, the way they do it is with loudness maximizers (See Waves L2 etc). This technique is used on almost all audio, but they take it to the limit on the stupid commericials.

    Oh, and yes I do have something in my TV that’s supposed to stop the big volume changes, but to be honest it doesn’t seem to work very well. I suppose I could get around it if I ran my audio through my computer, or an outboard compressor, but really I don’t think I should have to.

    Is regulation the solution, I don’t know. but yes this shit is annoying as hell.

    1. Option 1) the off button

      Option 2) a digital video recorder

      Under no circumstances should a law be written to regulate what individuals can solve by applying available technology.

  13. First of all, it’s not necessary.

    What the fuck does that have to do with anything?

  14. It’s compression and limiting. Basically, all sounds in a commercial are pushed to the maximum allowable volume. It’s the same thing that you notice when you switch from a jazz or classical station to the modern rock station. Volume dynamics are very important to classical and jazz music, but not so important to (shitty) modern rock, so while classical music occasionally reaches the maximum volme during the crescendos, modern rock is pushed and maintained at the maximum volume. In a sense then, commercials are louder because their average volume is higher than the average volume of most shows which require dynamics (unless you’re watching MTV), but they aren’t technically louder than the maximum allowable volume.

  15. Again our government fails to address the real issue. It is not the obnoxious volume of commercials that is the problem; it is the obnoxious commercials themselves.

    Our government needs to go after the main culprits, such as, the Free Credit Report.Com Guy and Flo. It is time to send these domestic terrorist to Gitmo!

    1. my buddy and I use Flo as a Mendoza line comparison for all chicks.

      Suzy Kolber or Flo?
      Michelle Obama or Flo? and so on.

      Flo does better than expected in a lot of head to head matchups.

      1. This is brilliant!

  16. “First of all, it’s not necessary. It’s easy enough to turn your TV off (or even live without one, as Szoka does). And if that’s too arduous, there are various technological solutions from companies like Dolby and SRS that help keep TV volumes on a more even keel…”

    I’ve got this cool thing called a remote control. You can actually CONTROL the volume with it! And you can do it remotely! I thinks that’s why it’s called a remote control.

  17. “That’s bad for government, because it gives it unnecessary power and distracts it from legitimate government activity.”

    Uh huh… yeah, like we wouldn’t want to give the government unnecessary power like spending trillions to bail out failed banks and brokers…
    The congressional motto? “If you don’t like the laws, change them” (or maybe just ignore them.)

    BTW… didja know that even if the bill passes the senate, (iffy) that the FCC will take a year to change the law by going through two committees and multiple studies…
    …and… even if that take place, there will be a three year waiver for the media to implement the rule…

    We are but sheep!

  18. Getting rid of cable was one of the best things I did. Netflix on Xbox + Hulu is so much nicer.

    “I’m telling you Jorge, the first thing you have to do when you get to America – buy a device called TiVo. Okay? Freedom means nothing if you’re a slave to regular programming. I promise you that.”

    1. Be careful. If Comcast purchases NBC-Universal they get >50% of Hulu. The rumors are if they acquire Hulu, they’re putting it behind a pay wall.

  19. Think of the regulatory JOBS this would create or save.

    Peter, why do you hate employment?

  20. I get all my TV via bittorrent or DVDs. No commercials either way.

  21. …shall not be presented at modulation levels substantially higher than the program material that such advertisements accompany…

    So I guess during a screening of Castaway, all they can play is that weird, first Infiniti commercial that didn’t actually say anything.

    And, with Billy Mays gone, I think half of this problem is solved.

  22. Ambulance sirens hurt ny ears. Congress should do something about that.

  23. I need to find me a client with sensitive ears, then sue the fck out of the cable company. Annoyance doesn’t get you anywhere, only blood gets results.

  24. If they can ban high volume, what’s next, ALL CAPS in blog comments?

  25. No arguments here. Government should never be involved in deciding what is morally right or wrong.

  26. And, with Billy Mays gone, I think half of this problem is solved.

    You need to dig down into the nether regions of your satellite package. He’s still there.

    We either TIVO, or use the mute. You would think that the idiots at the various networks would realize that people who feel the need to mute some commercials, end up muting all commercials, so all of their advertisers take a hit.

  27. Government is just bad. There’s no getting around it. Bad!

  28. Well, it’s not like our reps have any more serious issues to contend with. What could be more important that loud TV commercials or texting while driving or teens emailing naked pics of themselves.

    1. Yes. What could be more important than teens emailing naked pictures of themselves?

  29. Stations started pulling this crap years ago–right around the time that themes & intros disappeared and certain shows started ending at 9:01 or 10:02.

    But yes, there oughtta not be a law.

  30. She totally deserves a Nobel Peace prize for this one. Or maybe a Nobel Peace and Quiet prize.

  31. Rep. Anna Eshoo’s Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (“CALM Act” – HR 1084)

    Breaking news, Some Rep. introduces Congress Reacts Again and Pisses Off Libertarians Act – i.e. CRAPOLA


    1. Unfortunately, Scientologists get an automatic -5. I suffer over Jenna Elfman for the same reason.

  33. Gesundheit


  35. I used to produce TV commercials (back in the dark ages, before cable) so this may have changed, but I understood from the techs who completed the commercials for us that there was a top sound level, which was mandated by the FCC, which the commercials (trying to grab attention) went to, while the shows themselves didn’t have to, already having the attention of the viewers. As I say, this may have changed, but it seems as though this pending bill is the sort of overkill that representatives just love, like mandating the size of carry on luggage, just to say that they DID SOMETHING.

  36. === Our commitment, customer is God.

    Welcome to — —- We are specialized in offering all kinds of top brand shoes, jeans, t-shirts, jacket, jerseys, watches, purses, handbags, belts, wallets , sunglasses and hats etc.
    Accept paypal ,All the prices list on our website include shipping cost,insurance,tax etc..

    $50 UGG BOOT, $30 nike shoes,air jordan shoes,nike shox shoes,gucci shoes
    $33 true religion jeans, ed hardy jeans,coogi jeans,affliction jeans, Laguna Beach Jeans
    $16 ed hardy T-shirts,Coogi T-shirts,Christian Audigier T-shirts,Gucci T-shirts,Polo T-shirts.
    $30 coach handbag,gucci handbag,prada handbag,chanel handbag,$15sunglasses,$9 caps.

    I wish you a happy shopping and happy every day!

  37. It would have been neat if Chinese advertising person had crapped out his spam in ALL CAPS for this thread.

  38. Gee – why not have companies make batteries whatever size they please too? OF COURSE sound volume should be standardized, why even argue against it? It’s standard operating procedure for all multi-provider industries, not a conspiracy of of the left. Get real.

  39. There is lots of technical complexity to this. If you use Dish, OR DirecTv, OR any cable provider, they are constantly switching between local and network sources for commercials. It really is mostly the fault of the above three mentioned that audio levels aren’t more consistent. But, of course, commercials are routinely “compressed” for maximum average loudness, in order to call attention to themselves. But the failure of the satellite and cable providers to do better level-matching is really the source of the problem. Consider that they have to do this for each of the hundreds of channels they deliver. Its really more a problem of engineering and product quality, than it is of nefarious advertisers.

  40. Self-regulation: HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    I never knew there was such a thing as a Libertarian comedian!

  41. Brian,

    Battery size is not mandated by government. It is standardized by the industry. NEMA and the American National Standards Institute ANSI specify battery sizes. You can make batteries any size you want and many do for custom applications.

  42. Doesn’t Congress have anything better to do than pass legislation that serves the same function as a remote control?
    I’m stunned that so many people support the proposed act. Should the government start sending people to your homes to spoon feed you? Bathing is pretty strenuous too. Let’s get Congress working on that next.

  43. Commercials are OK in theory. Now there seems to be too many of them. Not only during the commercial breaks, but also under the picture during the shows. With the frequency of commercials, the loud sounds, and poor quality shows it isn’t worth watching any more. I haven’t watched a broadcast show in months. I also don’t have cable. DVDs I get from Netflix or buy at Walmart are mostly what I watch. Much less stress.

  44. My cable box has a setting for mainaining contant volume levels. This is probably for for not only ad volume but differences in volume between different channels. Some TVs also have this feature. Again, it looks like the market is already responding to this problem.

  45. You would think that setting levels to be even would be easy, but it is not. Back when I was doing on-air stuff the knob would go up to a point where my voice was hitting around -7 on VU meter, and that made it subjectively as loud as the music had been at “0”VU. We can measure electrical level or dB difference from full-scale quite easily, but how loud it actually sounds is quite dependant upon the spectral balance and crest factor of the program content, amongst other things.
    There is a “classic” loudness model in the hearing science textbooks that can be used to build a “volume” measurement that is kinda-sorta OK. but but given the variety of TV sound, differences would still be noticeable between commercials that “measure” the same.
    Fortunately a private corporation has designed a loudness measurement and calibration system. They are located — well, if you look at this wikipedia map they are on it:

  46. I agree, the ads are way off the sound level, but I have another volume problem and that is the noise behind any and all of the interviews, tv programs, ANYTHING the “music” (I call it noise) behind it all makes us wonder just WHAT is being said. ALL the channels do it -they think it helps the interview or the ad and it is getting louder than the person speaking!!! I (and many of my friends) have to turn off the channel until they get to the program. Even then they seem to feel they have to add background noise (music?) A lot of times I cannot enjoy the program through the noise being added to “ENHANCE??” the drama??? NOT SO ! It is more annoying and intrusive than it is beneficial!!! CH 2 I find is the worst! Maybe because I used to watch them more??? am now on a diff ch so I can hear what is being said!!! WHY ?? do they think they have to add this annoying sound to the interview or the program ???It adds NOTHING __No suspense–no intreague__– NOTHING!! but an annoyance!!!many of my friends have to turn off the channel becuse we cannot hear what is being said. HOW??? can this be addressed so we can enjoy our favorite stories??who to contact for this ????

  47. Thank you Rep. Eshoo for what you’re doing. Somebody needs to stop this racket. Contrary to what advertisers intent is, it only makes me determined not to buy their products and fast forward through the obnoxious noise. We should not have to put with that blaring noise in our homes.

  48. It’s not like this is a huge state intervention. You set a regulation, advertisers follow it, or get fined some annoying and avoidable amount. The free market solution is to have our television speakers blown out by louder and louder commercials as more and more baby-boomers (a larger market than you or I, to be sure) go deaf as they advertise products we weren’t going to buy anyway.

  49. Matt didn’t even show up in person? No chance he’s going to get hit in the face with a chair. What a gyp.

  50. I’m thankful the government will step in. Peter Suderman is an ignorant bitcher and complainer on any topic. He just wants to be an ass.

    1. Just keep spending those food stamps, pal.

  51. I agree, the ads are way off the sound level, but I have another volume problem and that is the noise behind any and all of the interviews, tv programs.
    We should not have to put with that blaring noise in our homes.

  52. I have no problem with the government or anyone else doing something about this.

    Why be so ideological? It’s not like they’re declaring martial law or something.

    Advertisers really brought this on themselves.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.