Bill would muffle loud TV commercials

WASHINGTON — Television viewers jarred by abrupt spikes in volume during commercial breaks may someday be able to give their mute buttons a rest.

"I not only dive for the mute button, but I end up having to close my windows so that the blast doesn't affect my neighbors," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of California. "I live on a cul-de-sac, and so the sound resonates."

Irritated with loud commercials, Eshoo found it was also a common complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. So she drafted a bill aimed at preventing TV ads from playing noticeably louder than the programs they sponsor.

The House is scheduled to vote on the bill today. An identical measure has been introduced in the Senate.

Even if they become law, will viewers notice much difference? Maybe, maybe not, some experts say.

Eshoo's bill originally prescribed that television advertisements could be no louder than the average maximum volume of the programs they accompany. She changed her bill to instead adopt guidelines developed by the TV industry, which she said will accomplish the same goal.

"I didn't go with the industry," she said. "I prodded the industry to come up with the technology and the standards. And they did."

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said Congress should have higher priorities than strident commercials.

"The idea that this is a problem that is so big that it requires legislative action is incredibly absurd," he said. "I don't think anyone's ears have ever been damaged by this."

The government doesn't have much say in the volume of TV ads. It's been getting complaints ever since televisions began proliferating in the 1950s. But the FCC concluded in 1984 that there was no fair way to write regulations controlling the "apparent loudness" of commercials.

Correcting sound levels is more complicated than using the remote control. The television shows and ads come from a variety of sources, from local businesses to syndicators.

Managing the transition between programs and ads without spoiling the producers' artistic intent poses technical challenges and may require broadcasters to buy new equipment.

To address the issue, an industry organization recently produced guidelines on how to process, measure and transmit audio in a uniform way.

Eshoo's bill requires the FCC to adopt those recommendations as regulations within a year and begin enforcing them a year later.

Mark Richer, who heads the industry's Advanced Television Systems Committee, said some companies have started to make changes.

"People are already hearing a difference — or not hearing a difference is a better way to put it," he said.

Richer's group doesn't have a position on the bill, but he said he hopes the government doesn't do something that complicates the industry's attempt to smooth out the volume.

Consumers Union and the American Association of Advertising Agencies support the legislation. The National Association of Broadcasters declined to comment on it.

Once the adjustments are in place, listeners may still notice different volume levels, Richer said. Sound spikes can be part of the storytelling — the screeching of a car, for example — and some commercials may just seem noisy because they follow a quiet, intense scene.

"That's life," Richer said. "That's what sound is."