Congress Tells Commercials to Quiet Down

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About four years ago, Representative Anna Eshoo, a 10-term Democrat from Silicon Valley, was resting at home one evening with the television on. At the time, Eshoo's elderly parents, who have since passed away, were living with her. "They had a hearing problem, so the TV volume was high to begin with," she recalls. Then the commercials came on. "It was enough to make me want to run away from home," she says of the loudness. "It was more than anyone should have to bear." She complained about the noise to her brother-in-law. "He said, 'Hey, you're the one in Congress,' " she says. " 'Why don't you do something about it?' "

She did, and now millions of American television viewers might benefit from her decision to speak up about turning the volume down.

What bothered Eshoo that fateful day has happened to all of us — you're watching a show, and when ads are broadcast, you notice that the car commercial is piercing your ears, even though you didn't turn up the volume on your remote. The FCC, in fact, has been fielding complaints from viewers about amped-up ads since the 1960s.

Thanks to Eshoo's work, Congress on Dec. 2 passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, replete with a fitting acronym, CALM. The CALM Act, which was sponsored by Eshoo in the House, requires broadcast and cable stations to adopt industry technology that ensures that commercials aren't louder than regular programming. The legislation attracted overwhelming bipartisan support — a rare thing — and President Obama signed it into law Wednesday, Dec. 15.

So why were commercials so loud to begin with? "Because the producers wanted them that way," says Tim Carroll, founder of Linear Acoustic, a company that makes volume-control equipment. The thought was that the louder the ad, the more likely viewers were to pay attention during a station break instead of getting off the couch to make a sandwich. "It's like the old trick the speaker salesmen would rely on," says Carroll. "The louder the speaker, the better it must be." Carroll says producers can use a technique called compression to increase the density of the audio, which makes it sound louder. To illustrate, he compares sound to snow. "If I took a handful of light snow and threw it at you, it wouldn't hurt that much," says Carroll. "But if I packed that same amount of snow into a ball and threw it at you, it would hurt a lot more. That's compression."

Dick O'Brien, director of government relations for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, denies that advertisers intentionally made commercials too loud. "Advertising works best when the public is engaged, not alienated," he says. "It makes sense that we'd want viewers to be in a good mood, not a bad mood." O'Brien insists that since advertisers work separately from programmers, there's often discordance in decibel levels. His organization supports the new law.

Indeed, the bill has drawn little opposition, and both the industry and lawmakers insist it will bring relief to the ears of viewers. After the FCC adopts the law, broadcast stations and cable operators have a year to comply with it, though smaller outlets, decimated by the economy, might have more trouble affording the sound-correcting equipment. "These days, the chief engineer of many local stations is also doing the plumbing and painting the halls," Carroll notes. The law, however, permits such distressed stations to apply for a temporary waiver from the FCC.

The law has turned Eshoo into a rock star. "I just thought my family would notice," she says. "That I'd come home, say, 'Mission accomplished,' they'd applaud, and that would be that." Instead, she has received dozens of thankful e-mails and phone calls, and strangers have approached her in the grocery store expressing gratitude. "Oh my goodness, I could have saved 50 million children from some horrible malady, and there would be five lines written about it," Eshoo says. "This has been astounding."