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Bill seeks to turn down sound on TV ads
San Francisco Chronicle


June 14, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Hold to review with Kate

Fed up with TV ads so loud that they send viewers scrambling to hit mute on their remotes, a San Francisco area lawmaker is pushing a new bill that would force federal regulators to ratchet down the volume of commercials.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., introduced the proposal this week and it isn't winning her any friends in the broadcasting or advertising industries. But Eshoo's House colleagues are warming to the idea, which could address a daily annoyance for millions of TV viewers.

"I've had it with these loud advertisements," said Eshoo, who said she was motivated after being jolted by one too many ear-splitting ads. "If I'm not close to my remote control to push the mute button, it practically blasts you out of the house. It's that annoying. And it's totally unnecessary."

Eshoo is not alone in pressing the issue. British regulators approved similar rules last month that require broadcasters to limit the "maximum subjective loudness" of TV ads after receiving complaints.

In a time of war, soaring gas prices and a slumping economy, curbing the volume of 30-second spots might not seem like a top priority for Congress, but Eshoo insists that, unlike those issues, this problem would be simple to fix.

Her two-page bill would direct the Federal Communications Commission to write new rules within a year setting limits on the volume of ads. Commercials could not have an "average maximum loudness" that exceeds the programming that they accompany. The measure would apply to all spots on broadcast, cable or satellite television.

But major advertisers suggest the bill might be a solution in search of a problem.

"We get lots of complaints about various things, but I haven't really heard any complaints about this issue," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president in the Washington, D.C., office of the Association of National Advertisers.

Adonis Hoffman, a senior vice president for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, an industry trade group, said he believes the FCC might already have the authority to set new volume rules.

"If so," he said, "that might obviate the need for any new legislation."

In Britain, the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice, which sets guidelines for the industry, decided to act to limit ads that are "excessively noisy or strident."

The British panel found that advertisers use a technique called audio compression, which shrinks the dynamic range of sounds -- the spectrum between loud and quiet -- to keep the ad within the same volume range as that of a TV program. But if the ad runs during a movie with a wide sound range, the ads will often blare at the highest level of sound -- say, the car chase or the explosion -- sending viewers diving for the remote.

The FCC doesn't regulate the volume of television programs and commercials, although it has received complaints about sound levels. In 1984, the agency concluded that there was no effective way to control loudness, which it said was a subjective issue for viewers. New technology, however, makes sound levels more controllable.

Chuck McBride, chief creative officer of the Cutwater ad agency in San Francisco, said his firm would lay down track after track of sound -- music, background noises, dialogue. After mixing it on high-end equipment, they run it through the small, tinny speakers used in most TV sets.

"You have to remix it so it plays well on a really small speaker," McBride said.

McBride said he finds loud ads annoying, too -- "especially when you get those ads that start off shouting, "'Right now, you can get so-and-so on sale!'" He'd like to see the industry set its own audio standards.

"I don't think the federal government should regulate it," he said.

Broadcasters insist they don't ratchet up the volume during commercial breaks. That's partially true. Under FCC rules, TV stations must use equipment that limits the peak power they can use to broadcast audio and video signals. So the peak volume levels of ads are the same as the peak levels of other programs.

But that doesn't mean TV ads aren't louder. There is a lot of nuance in sound. Often advertisers use the loudest settings in the audio file to grab viewers' attention. So the average volume level of commercials often is higher than TV programs. That's why Great Britain just set new rules to limit these "excessively noisy or strident" ads after viewers complained.

Viewers also can experience "perceived loudness" -- for example, when a quiet scene in a movie abruptly shifts into a loud one. San Francisco-based Dolby Laboratories has new technology that helps even out those volume levels, and some new Toshiba TV sets use it. TV stations also are starting to use new technology to normalize those levels.


E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile(at)
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