America's First Line of Defense Against the Sit 'n' Sleep Commercial


Take it from a big mouth: Martha Raye's freedom to be as loud as she wanted ta be was the greatest freedom of all.

Here's an essential function of government: making sure you don't have to turn your TV down during commercial breaks. 

For years the One Percent have been preying upon the rest of us by pitching commercials at higher volumes than regular programming. The practice is widely unpopular according to opinion polls, though it does not appear to depress overall viewing numbers. 

Enter the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act, which authorizes the Federal Communications Commission "to prescribe a standard to preclude commercials from being broadcast at louder volumes than the program material they accompany." President Obama signed the CALM Act last year. Today, just prior to a ceremony for the shambling corpse of outgoing Commissioner Michael Copps, the FCC laid down detailed rules

USA Today's Mike Snider

The order, which goes into effect one year from today, "says commercials must have the same average volume as the programs they accompany," says FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Last year, President Obama signed into law a measure that Congress passed giving the FCC authority to address the problem. A Harris poll taken around that time found that 86% of people surveyed said TV commercials were louder than the shows themselves — and, in many cases, much louder. "It is a problem that thousands of viewers have complained about, and we are doing something about it," Genachowski says.

While normal listening levels average about 70 decibels for a typical TV broadcast — 60 is equivalent to a restaurant conversation; 80 to a garbage disposal — levels on a TV channel can vary by as much as 20 decibels.

To comply with the new law, broadcasters can use audio processors to measure the loudness of a program over its entirety and adjust the volume of commercials accordingly, says Joe Snelson, vice president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers. He said the goal is to avoid an abrupt change in volume when a show goes to commercial break.

The steep shift in volume can certainly be annoying. But it's fitting that Copps is being put out to pasture on the same day the FCC solves the most pressing TV problem of 1991. With the advent of DVR, online streaming and other technological terrors, the traditional potty-break commercial is already a fossil. In fact, advertisers are putting a lot of thought into solving the problem of ever-more-ignorable commercials – by, for example, framing and editing images so that they'll still communicate to a viewer who is fast-forwarding through the ads. This is a new version of an old problem: The original goal of raising the volume was to make sure commercials registered despite viewers' efforts to ignore them. 

Because making a profit is always really easy and these big corporations just write everything off, you can be sure the FCC will soon have to take the battle to new fronts. I just watched the Chipwrecked trailer on my computerwebs. A trailer is itself an advertisement. And yet both before and after viewing it I was forced – forced I say! – to watch other ads. That's no different than fascism, and it's certainly not what the framers had in mind when they wrote their fancy "First Amendment." FCC, where are you?