Regulating 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.
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?