Congress Considers Hitting Mute On Loud TV Ads

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Remote control pointed at a TV. iStockphoto.com i i

Commercials on television definitely seem louder than the programs, but in a way, they're not. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Remote control pointed at a TV. iStockphoto.com

Commercials on television definitely seem louder than the programs, but in a way, they're not.

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Anyone who watches TV can tell you: When the commercials come on, it feels like you're being blasted by volume. At some point, we've all reached for the mute button, because those ads are so much louder than the shows surrounding them.

But do TV commercials really have to be louder than the TV programs? That's what Congress is deciding right now.

While commercials on television definitely seem louder than the programs, in a way, they're not. Here's how it works: Commercials are allowed to air at the peak level for all programming — the level of explosions, car crashes or cops yelling at criminals to get down on the ground. So if your TV show is having a quiet moment, or if it's a quiet show like a bowling tournament, then the commercials are going to feel like they're blasting you out of your seat.

"It's a great source of irritation to anyone who's watching TV," says California Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat. "It certainly was to me; it is to my family; it is to my friends; it is to my constituents. This is one of the top complaints to the Federal Communications Commission. It really strikes a chord."

Eshoo authored a bill aiming to lower the volume on TV ads by making the peak volume of commercials match the peak volume of the segment airing just before it. The bill was recently passed by the House, and an identical bill now goes to the Senate. Eshoo is confident the Senate version will pass quickly.

Berin Szoka isn't happy about that. He works for the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a market-based think tank in Washington, D.C. "I just don't have a lot of confidence that the FCC is going to make this magically happen," he says.

Szoka says the real answer lies in self-regulation and use of new technology. He says it was the broadcast industry that developed parental controls for TV and the Internet, and he says the industry is currently developing sound-reduction equipment. That's a better plan, he says, than just issuing a government order.

"To assume that only government is able to make this happen sets a very dangerous precedent for inviting government micromanagement — not only of television but of all media and the Internet in particular," he says.

Still, Stanford marketing professor Jennifer Aaker says the advertising industry has not done a great job of self-regulation so far. She doesn't see that changing, because individual advertisers often don't mind being annoying. Sometimes, she says, they do it on purpose.

"What you're seeing is advertisers needing to yell, metaphorically and literally, louder and louder, in order to grab attention." Annoying ads have stickiness, Aaker says. And individual commercials will always go as loud as allowed.

"Advertisers need to walk that fine line between grabbing consumers' attention and not annoying them too deeply, but that's a very fine line to walk," she says.

But even if TV advertisers do manage to walk that fine line, a growing number of consumers may be skipping their ads anyway. About 30 percent of TV viewers are now using DVR and TiVo to record their favorite shows — and fast-forward through the ads, whatever the volume.

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