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Regulating Loud Commercials

loud-commercials Peter Suderman and Berin Szoka provide sane, libertarian arguments against the Nanny State regulating the volume of television commercials.  While they both find the longstanding practice where the ads are several decibels higher than the surrounding programming annoying, they nonetheless argue that it’s not a matter where government should intervene.

Says Suderman,

It’s easy enough to turn your TV off (or even live without one, as Szoka does). And if that’s too arduous, there are various technological solutions from companies like Dolby and SRS that help keep TV volumes on a more even keel.

[...]

But the larger problem is the assumption this grows out of — that government’s job is to regulate every minor annoyance out the lives of its citizens. That’s bad for government, because it gives it unnecessary power and distracts it from legitimate government activity. It’s also worse for citizens, who develop an implicit sense that, when problems arise, the way to fix them is to beg Congress, pass a law, wait for new irritations to arise, then wash, rinse, repeat. And  in the end, I think that’s far more grating and obnoxious than a little volume manipulation from advertisers on the idiot box.

Szoka notes that proposed legislation is technically unsound and subject to selective enforcement.  And there’s the issue of freedom:

[T]he bill does embody a recurrent presumption that it’s ok to regulate advertising in ways we wouldn’t accept for the “show” itself (i.e., non-advertising content). Of course, the show could be “commercial” (which, in First Amendment terms, means it would generally get only “intermediate” scrutiny) while the advertisement could be “non-commercial”—such as a political ad. But even if most ads are commercial, so what? If the government is going to protect us from “noisy or strident” commercials, why not all “noisy or strident” programming? Even the most annoying TV ad is probably less annoying than, say, the James Carvilles of the world debating the Glenn Becks of the world. (Of course, users really bothered by noise, but unwilling to give up TV, would probably much rather have a dynamic market for TVs with volume moderating features than rules that dull the din of commercials alone.)

Kevin Drum doesn’t care. He just wants the noise to stop.

[B]laring TV commercials have been an obvious and fixable problem for several decades and no “basic harmony of interests” has yet manifested itself.1 This suggests to me that it never will unless the industry is pressured into doing it.

[...]

1A shortcoming, by the way, that’s made worse by the artistic decisions of certain shows.  The worst for me is 24, which I have to crank up in order to hear the hoarse stage whisper that Kiefer Sutherland affects in his Jack Bauer role.  The ads are loud even at the best of times, but they’re really loud when you’ve already turned up the volume just to hear the show itself.

2This is an issue, like the Do Not Call registry, that transcends politics.  I don’t really care whether volume regulations are liberal or conservative or trample the Bill of Rights or whatever.  I just want the noise to stop.  If it takes jackboots to stop it, then so be it.

While I’m naturally in the Suderman-Szoka camp on the issue of Nanny Statism, Drum has persuaded me on this one with the strength of his footnotes.

The fact of the matter is that the federal government has regulated the manner in which television has been broadcast since before we were broadcasting television. (The Radio Commission, the forebear of the FCC, predates television.)  They regulate the spectrum on which broadcasters operate, require a certain amount of “public interest” programming as a condition of licensing, require a certain amount of “truth in advertising,” restrict the use of coarse language and images in over-the-air broadcasts, and otherwise oversee many aspects of what’s shown on television.   Why shouldn’t they set parameters on something that genuinely annoys most of us?

This isn’t a free speech issue. It doesn’t impinge on speech in any way. It merely requires that broadcasters refrain from blaring the ads.

Government already regulates the content of commercial speech, which has long been less protected than political speech.  Indeed, those of us over a certain age can recall the days when those advertising ladies’ undergarments had to use mannequins to demonstrate their wares.  Or that it took the AIDS epidemic to get the FCC to allow advertising for condoms — or, hell, the use of the word “condom.”

Yes, I suppose consumers could invest in sophisticated technology to solve this annoyance.  But why should we have to do that?

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The aim of this government is total control. It happens when elites think they know what is best for the other citizens. Our government is now full of them.

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  2. alkali says:

    You know who liked speaking at a moderate volume? Hitler, that’s who!

    (Actually, come to think of it, he didn’t. Never mind.)

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  3. the Q says:

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but the commercials really aren’t “louder”, what the broadcasting companies do is compress the signal so that the sound waves in the audible spectrum are crunched together.

    As an example: lets say you have a glass of water that you spill on the table…its the same volume of water, its just dispersed, so if you tried drinking it off the table, it would be a pain.

    Concentrating the liquid in a glass, makes it much easier to drink.

    Ditto with auditory signals, over a normal sound spectrum, we hear the sound like we do during a regular (non compressed signal) TV show.

    However, when the commercials’ signal is compressed, we hear the difference and assume, they are “louder”, when in fact we are just hearing more of the auditory spectrum “compressed” for our ear to pick up.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    However, when the commercials’ signal is compressed, we hear the difference and assume, they are “louder”, when in fact we are just hearing more of the auditory spectrum “compressed” for our ear to pick up.

    This strikes me as a distinction without difference. If it sounds louder, it’s louder.

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  5. [...] James Joyner: While I’m naturally in the Suderman-Szoka camp on the issue of Nanny Statism, Drum has persuaded me on this one with the strength of his footnotes. [...]

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  6. Furhead says:

    HI, BILLY MAYS HERE …

    This strikes me as a distinction without difference. If it sounds louder, it’s louder.

    Yup, I’ve heard this compressed/non-compressed argument before, and even understand it (decibels and sones and all that crap). But that doesn’t make it less annoying or less subjectively loud to a human ear.

    My hearing is imperfect and, like Drum, I have to crank the volume to hear some dialogue (especially when they have loud background music over it – why the sound engineers don’t realize this is a problem is way beyond my understanding). It’s gotten to the point that I usually can’t watch TV if anybody in my house is sleeping. I would think that advertisers might care about this little problem, but apparently they would rather defer to the nanny state to fix the problem.

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  7. the Q says:

    “This strikes me as a distinction without difference. If it sounds louder, it’s louder.”

    Isn’t that like saying because I have two $5 bills I must have more money than your one $10 dollar bill?

    The fact is it isn’t louder, it just seems that way and the easiest way to stop this is to force the broadcast companies to uncompress the signal on commercials.

    Pretty simple, non big brother nanny state solution I would think.

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  8. If it takes jackboots to stop it, then so be it.

    Because jackboots can be counted on to respect boundaries and not exceed their brief?

    Imagine the hue and cry if someone like Rush Limbaugh had called for jackboots to do anything, no matter how innocuous and popular.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    Imagine the hue and cry if someone like Rush Limbaugh had called for jackboots to do anything, no matter how innocuous and popular.

    Kevin’s left-of-center but he’s being tongue-in-cheek here. This would just be regulation by bureaucrats. No jackboots required.

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  10. hcantrall says:

    Since I never hear any complaints about this issue, I thought I was the only one bothered by this! My husband was in the Marines for 8 years and working on Amtracs I think ruined his hearing. Watching tv with him in general is difficult and beyond so on those channels who have ads running at twice the level the actual programming runs. I do hope they change this, though as Q said, it really shouldn’t take the government stepping in to make it happen. Maybe if we call those stations directly and hollered at them, they’d get it?

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  11. Eric Florack says:

    This strikes me as a distinction without difference. If it sounds louder, it’s louder.

    Actually, no, it’s not. You have happened to hit on a topic of which I am as close to an expert is no matter. All recorded audio, can only get so loud. The process that they describe, however, compresses the audio dynamically. This means, that the difference between the loudest sound on a given recording and the softest sound on that same recording is minimized to at least some extent, and with some commercials and a lot of pop music it is minimized to a great extent. The average loudness, is in fact affected here. However, the peak is not.

    Have you ever noticed that the commercials on a radio station are not a great deal louder if aty all, than the music? The reason for that is simple; the audio processing the compressors peak limiters and other processing here, are all in the air chain, and are pretty generally cranked to maximum compression , which is to save minimum loudness differences. the commercials, while they are processed themselves, simply aren’t going to get any louder, because the air chain is already doing a great deal of work. Anyloudness increase past that level isn’t going to be noticed.

    Now, in TV land, most movies and a lot of regular TV shows, dynamics are much more varied. Running the kind of compression on those sources would sound un-natural, and in fact make anything hard to listen to. But, commercials, which are by nature set pretty much to saturation, SEEM a lot louder.

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  12. Steve Verdon says:

    TV remotes have this button called ‘Mute’….just saying….

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  13. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it . . .

    Sound, like all phenomena, might be measured objectively but is experienced subjectively. It is reasonably accurate to say that something is louder if most people experience it that way because what we’re talking about is the experience not the scientific measurement.

    In point of fact the sound is compressed precisely so that it will seem louder.

    It’s intended to be louder, it’s experienced as louder. It’s louder.

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  14. Brian J. says:

    James Joyner has a RIGHT to television at the same broadcast volume level. All sportscasters, please refrain from expressing pleasure at touchdowns, goals, or home runs in the future.

    Seriously, though, is annoyance a call for a regulatory action not, um, quite opening the door to actually saying it is the government’s job to eliminate all annoyances from citizens’ lives?

    Unless, of course, your annoyances are of the wrong type, you clinger.

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  15. Davebo says:

    Now, in TV land, most movies and a lot of regular TV shows, dynamics are much more varied. Running the kind of compression on those sources would sound un-natural, and in fact make anything hard to listen to. But, commercials, which are by nature set pretty much to saturation, SEEM a lot louder.

    Yes, if we start asking broadcasters to deal with these annoying and highly technical dynamics of audio compression what’s next? Will we want them to beam live video off of small machines floating in space live across the planet?

    If what you are saying is “the solution is just too technically difficult to deal with” I’d say your “expertise” must have ceased advancement during Edward R. Murrow’s day.

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  16. Franklin says:

    TV remotes have this button called ‘Mute’….just saying….

    And if you can tell me exactly when to turn it on and off so that my wife and kids don’t get awoken, please let me know your secret.

    Many commercials come on full blast, immediately following a quiet moment like the end of a drama.

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  17. Herb says:

    Seriously, though, is annoyance a call for a regulatory action not, um, quite opening the door to actually saying it is the government’s job to eliminate all annoyances from citizens’ lives?

    Not really. Don’t think of it as the government eliminating annoyances. Think of it as the government enforcing technical standards, which just happen to result in fewer annoyances.

    Now if the market were doing this on its own (enforcing technical standards), then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But the market seems quite content to send us TV shows at one compression rate, and ads at a different (more annoying) rate.

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  18. Eric Florack says:

    Yes, if we start asking broadcasters to deal with these annoying and highly technical dynamics of audio compression what’s next? Will we want them to beam live video off of small machines floating in space live across the planet?

    Once audio is compressed dynamically, and regardless of the techology, particularly multi-band processing, it is at least a particularly messy process of getting it back to it’s original shape. Commercial spots by nature are audibly ‘denser’ than normal TV programming.

    There’s this, too; The issue isn’t that TV stations are cranking up the volume, it’s that the spots in question are more highly processed than the TV and movie material surrounding it. THe only way to solve that issue is to crank up the compression on programming as well… and the effect is not very desirable, trust me on this.

    Not really. Don’t think of it as the government eliminating annoyances. Think of it as the government enforcing technical standards, which just happen to result in fewer annoyances.

    Bull. It’s government asking the impossible to satisfy a paltry few who are offended by crass commercialism. Sorry, no sale.

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  19. Don’t like loud commercials? Read a book. Now that’s subversive.

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  20. Steve Verdon says:

    And if you can tell me exactly when to turn it on and off so that my wife and kids don’t get awoken, please let me know your secret.

    Many commercials come on full blast, immediately following a quiet moment like the end of a drama.

    As the show ends you pick up the remote, move your finger over the mute button, as the final scene fades, push down with the finger over the mute button.

    Personally, I’m annoyed by fat slow walking people. I want a regulation to make these people walk faster. The upside, they’ll hopefully be less fat.

    You know, if Kevin Drum didn’t live in an apartment, he’d be blogging about kids on his lawn.

    Don’t like loud commercials? Read a book. Now that’s subversive.

    BURN THE WITCH!!!!11!!oNE!!

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  21. Steve Verdon says:

    By the way, the Market is working. Drum watches 24 even though the annoying commercials piss him off. The market solution is to not watch, but he doesn’t do that. Classic case of wanting to eat his cake and have it too. And there is a totally commerical free alternative…watch via DVD. I watch all my television shows via Netflix. Yeah, I’m a season behind, but no commercials, multiple episodes one one disk, sometimes commentary, and I can watch at my leisure.

    All I see here is: I don’t like, so lets make a law against it.

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