When the government tells someone to shut up, we call it censorship and the First Amendment requires the government to defend its regulation. But what if the government just says, “Shhhh… could you please turn that down?” Rep. Anna Eshoo’s Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (“CALM Act” - HR 1084) would do just that: 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.
Now, I understand where Ms. Eshoo is coming from: I have a very low tolerance for noise in general and for television in particular—and it’s not just about commercials. (I find TV news at least as “noisy” and “strident” as commercials. That’s why I opted-out from the whole TV thing in about 2000. Yup, that’s right: I found better things to do with my time and the supposedly all-powerful “gatekeepers” of Hollywood couldn’t do a damn thing about it. You should try it if you don’t like what’s on TV! To paraphrase Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say watch, but I will defend to the death your right to say watch it! You can get most of what’s worth watching on DVD or online anyway.) But do we really need bureaucrats in Washington micromanaging volume levels? Maybe Congressmen would have a little more time to read the bills they vote for if they they weren’t so busy fiddling with everyone else’s remote!
Eshoo’s bill has passed the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Communications Subcommittee just as the TV industry is completing work on voluntary standards of their own. That’s one “less restrictive” alternative to regulation. What about technological empowerment? If Americans really hate loud commercials so much, why don’t they demand TVs with built-in volume normalization features? But this bill isn’t merely unnecessary, it would also set a disturbing precedent in at least six ways.
First, while it might seem that a regulation could draw clear lines with simple rules here about volume, Cliff Stearns (R-Fl) points out that “it is difficult to regulate volumes, since commercials are produced by a number of studios and companies that use different technologies and volume standards.” But this ambiguity merely increased the potential for selective enforcement, which would exist even where it were possible to craft precise rules. Because the law makes no distinction about “non-commercial” (i.e., not-for-profit) advertisements, this means a politicized FCC could use volume controls as a weapon against opposing political advertising or other non-profit speech it did not like. Anyone who’s ever lived under a Home Owner’s Association should understand how easily an HOA president with a personal grudge could use hyper-technical rules about what shade of blue you have to paint your own mailbox to harass you. And isn’t “strident” the very adjective most commonly used to write off the arguments of those with whom we disagree?
Second, even though it does not exempt non-commercial ads, the bill does embody a recurrent presumption that it’s ok to regulate advertising in ways we wouldn’t accept for the “show” itself (i.e., non-advertising content). Of course, the show could be “commercial” (which, in First Amendment terms, means it would generally get only “intermediate” scrutiny) while the advertisement could be “non-commercial”—such as a political ad. But even if most ads are commercial, so what? If the government is going to protect us from “noisy or strident” commercials, why not all “noisy or strident” programming? Even the most annoying TV ad is probably less annoying than, say, the James Carvilles of the world debating the Glenn Becks of the world. (Of course, users really bothered by noise, but unwilling to give up TV, would probably much rather have a dynamic market for TVs with volume moderating features than rules that dull the din of commercials alone.)
Third, I’m sure that the government would defend Eshoo’s bill, if signed into law, as a restriction on the “time, place and manner” of speech. Although such restrictions are much easier for the government to defend than most restrictions on speech, the government must still show that the regulation is “narrowly drawn” and “serves a significant government interest.” So… what’s the interest here? I’m a little disturbed by the idea that the government has a “significant interest” in what goes on in the space between Americans, their couches, and the electronic display of their choosing. (If we were talking about non-consensual “second-hand television” like TVs blaring in airports, I might be slightly more sympathetic: It’s awfully hard to escape the sound of TV when you’re stuck at the gate waiting for a flight. But commercials are only marginally more annoying to me than most TV, and airport TVs generally show news anyway—the height of annoyingness. I’d much rather see airports, bars, etc. adopt directional sound technologies so that users can move out of the “blast radius” and into peace and quiet simply by moving over a few seats.)
Fourth, I understand that most users probably do wish that commercials probably weren’t so loud. But, this very fact, combined with the ease with which users can now skip all commercials (36% of U.S. homes have a DVR), creates a pretty powerful incentive for the TV industry to self-regulate the volume level of advertising. “Noisy or strident” advertising is just another example of the “tragedy of the commons” at work: Absent any rules, every individual advertiser has an incentive to jack up the volume in order to attract attention, and doing so will probably work up to a certain point of increased annoyance by the user. But collectively, such ads hurt all advertisers because they increase ad blindness, ad deafness, and/or outright commercial skipping. The same dynamic plays out on the Internet, where flashing, blinking, bouncing, strobing dancing ads really drive users nuts and make them turn to tools like AdBlock Plus and Flashblock—which is why ad networks like Google have policies that implement their own “time, place and manner” rules out of pure self-interest. Such rules are useful and valuable. They benefit advertisers, consumers and the ad network alike, because there exists a basic harmony of interests between them: annoying ads don’t really benefit anyone in the long-term. Do we really want government bureaucrats making these decisions instead?
Fifth, if the FCC has a “significant” interest in “protecting” us from annoying TV ads, why shouldn’t the FTC protect us from annoying ads online? Here, the problems of government making rules become even more obvious as the medium is far more dynamic. But users already have radical user empowerment tools.
Finally, what about the unintended consequences of such regulation? For example, will intermediaries be responsible for compliance?
Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), raised the issue of the impact of the bill on small cable operators. He said that while he was not disputing the need for uniform commercial volume, he said the bill, “perhaps unintentionally” was prejudiced [against] small operators. He pointed out that many of those operators did not insert ads themselves or have “the right to alter national feeds unilaterally, like some of the bigger cable companies.” He said that those operators “simply pass through broadcast signals and have no means of adjusting the volume of commercials on the stream.”
If the FCC were to hold ad-distributor intermediaries liable for the volume-compliance of ad-producers, that could certainly disadvantage small distributors and perhaps even promote consolidation—both horizontal and vertical. But isn’t media consolidation the great evil that “media reformistas” are constantly warning us about?