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Quieter TV commercials law goes into effect

Former FCC Chair Michael Powell, left, congratulates Rep. Anna Eshoo and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on their bill, which regulates the volume of TV commercials.
Former FCC Chair Michael Powell, left, congratulates Rep. Anna Eshoo and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on their bill, which regulates the volume of TV commercials.

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Perhaps it’s appropriate in this season of silent nights that a new law has kicked in ensuring that overly-loud commercials won’t blast TV watchers away. Appropriately, the genesis of the law came on a not-so-silent night.

Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto had her family over for dinner one evening.  The TV was on in the next room. Eshoo says they were watching a sports event, "and then the blast of the commercial came on."

Eshoo says she shouted out to her brother-in-law: “Do something about that!” She says he shouted back: “You’re the Congresswoman, you do something about it!”

So she did.

Eshoo wasn’t the only who’s complained about screaming ads. A Harris Poll three years ago indicated that high commercial volume bothers nearly 9 of 10 TV viewers. Several members of Congress say that at town halls, complaints about blaring TV ads were as common as concerns about Social Security.

Congress passed Eshoo’s bill, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act – also known as CALM. The president signed and it takes effect Thursday.

So why did it take so long to turn down the sound? How hard could it be? Back when he was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell says he asked a group of broadcast experts the same question. He says one of his engineers responded, "You know, Mr. Chairman, this would take an act of God."  Powell says all it took was an act of Congress.

Mark Richer, head of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, was tasked to find the technical solution. He says part of the challenge is the food chain: commercials go from ad agencies to the networks, then out to local stations, cable, or satellite providers.

Richer says getting everybody to understand the parameters of this is very challenging.  And he says there’s more involved than the transition between programs and commercials. Somebody’s got to balance the volume of each ad. He says you could have a serious commercial, where the perceived volume might be low, "and then you might go to a booming car commercial or 'This is on sale’ kind of commercial and it’s very loud." You have to balance the volume so the "perception of that loudness will be the same for the viewer without losing the effect you want."

Early on, small cable companies pushed back. Matthew Polka, head of the American Cable Association, says they understood commercials were too loud: "We hoped that there would not be imposition of costly regulations that would essentially create a chilling effect on our members’ ability to provide broadband services in small markets and rural areas." But Polka says the FCC got it right.

All broadcasters should be in compliance by now. In case they're not, consumers may complain directly to the FCC with an online form. The FCC has the power to fine repeat offenders.

Congresswoman Eshoo calls the new volume restrictions a holiday gift to advertisers, "because consumers are pushing the mute button. So whatever they’re paying to advertise, that message is not coming through to the American people.”

The new law is also a bit of a gift to Eshoo: it took effect on her birthday.