Loud TV Ads: No Need for Regulation

by on October 21, 2008 · 24 comments

This summer, I posted a tongue-and-cheek piece thanking policymakers for taking steps to save us from loud television ads. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) have proposed H.R. 6209, the “Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act.” (the “C.A.L.M. Act”) to address the supposed scourge of “volume manipulation” in TV ads by making sure that TV ads are not “excessively noisy or strident.” The FCC would be empowered to regulate “the average maximum loudness” of ads to make sure they “shall not be substantially higher than the average maximum loudness of the program material that such advertisements accompany.”

Ken C. Pohlmann, one of my favorite A/V columnists, offers his thoughts on the Calm Act in his monthly column for Sound & Vision magazine in the November issue. “This bill is a totally dumb idea,” he argues, “and it has the added advantage of being unenforceable. What are we supposed to do? Levy a $550,000 fine when Janet Jackson has a volume-control malfunction?” Good question. As I pointed out in my essay on this, the thought of FCC bureaucrats sitting around squandering their time and taxpayer money on this nonsense is really appalling, and I can’t wait to see the reams of paperwork they would spit out when they have to open an proceeding about how “excessively noisy or strident” ads will be defined, measured, and then penalized.

“Fortunately,” Pohlmann points out, “practical solutions are already available from the private sector” such that regulation is unnecessary. He elaborates:

At the broadcast and distribution end, as part of the ATSC standard, Dolby Digital has built-in loudness-normalization parameters. Using these protocols, any receiving decoder will recognize the metadata and adjust the sound to proper levels. All Dolby audio signals are controlled by these parameters; when used properly, they ensure consistent levels across one channel and between many channels. True, some engineers and producers aren’t setting the metadata properly, but that’s a simple matter of education and experience.

At the receiving end, systems such as Dolby Volume use psychoacoustic models that help maintain a consistent level across all kinds of material. They let the listener (not the government) control a program’s dynamic range, optimizing it for personal taste, particular listening conditions (such as late-night viewing), and the gear at hand.

The point is that we want TV with a wide dynamic range. After decades of listening to squashed analog audio from two-inch built-in speakers, we want kick-ass TV sound played through our home theaters. Let’s not mess that up.

As an audio purist, what Pohlmann is most concerned about is the idea of the government coming up with new regulatory standards for advertising that might have the unintended consequence of changing the way program distributors set sound levels for actual programs. Not everybody cares about audio quality as much as Pohlmann and me, but for those of us who do, anything that ended up degrading the soundtrack of original programming would be a huge step backwards. Network and cable television programs are FINALLY starting to catch-up with movie soundtracks after years of being way behind he curve.

Of course, these are the little things people in Congress and the FCC never think about when they are proposing absurd laws like this.

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