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Government: The FCC moves to shush loud commercials

December 13, 2011 |  5:23 pm

Congressional Republicans often refer to the rules set by the federal government as "job-killing regulations." But one of the final regulatory thrusts of the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010 had bipartisan support: a law aimed at stopping loud television commercials, such as the ones that made Vince (pictured above) famous.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission translated that law into regulation, requiring broadcasters, cable TV systems and satellite operators to abide by an industry group's recommendations for limiting commercials' volume. The rule goes into effect in one year, and it allows the commission to grant exemptions of up to two years for stations or pay-TV systems that face a financial hardship.

No one likes commercials that boom out of the TV at seemingly twice the volume of the show they interrupt, so it's not surprising that the measure -- the Senate version of a House bill by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) -- passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by voice vote. The Times' editorial board was distinctly in the minority when it weighed in against the proposal, saying there was no need for a government mandate when viewers were solving the problem themselves by using digital video recorders and fast-forwarding through the ads.

I still like the idea of viewers persuading advertisers to fix the problem -- and make ads more appealing in general -- by voting with their DVRs, so to speak. And the TV industry has been responding to the criticism; as the commission noted Tuesday, "consumer complaints about loud commercials have diminished since 2009," when Eshoo introduced her bill. Consumer-electronics companies have helped out too, with TV sets and amplifiers designed to stop volume from spiking during commercial breaks.

The rule also poses a potential problem for broadcasters and pay-TV services. It holds them responsible for the volume not just of the ads they insert but also for the commercials embedded into the programming they receive from networks, syndicators and studios. That forces them to level out volume on the fly when the program is being carried live. But with as much as 95% of the commercials being embedded in programs, rather than inserted by the broadcaster or pay-TV service, the rule wouldn't have accomplished much if it hadn't applied to both kinds of ads. And the commission provided a safe harbor, saying broadcasters and pay-TV services could comply by having the source of the embedded ads certify that they met the rule's standards.

All in all, the rule short-circuits the solutions that were emerging in the market, and it increases broadcasters' compliance costs. But the bottom line is that it peeves viewers to have to adjust the volume up and down repeatedly to keep the dialogue they want to hear at roughly the same level as the commercial pitches they don't. That's why this is one rule that the anti-regulatory forces in Congress will try to undo at their peril.


Ads too loud? Try mute

-- Jon Healey

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