Media Beat
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Published by Seattle Times, Feb. 2, 1994

What To Do About Those Blaring TV Commercials

This article is not only dedicated to our parents, it was inspired by them.

In our columns, we try to tackle the big media controversies - censorship, mergers, biased coverage of health care or NAFTA or world hunger.

But all four of our parents tell us we've missed an issue. "When are you guys going to take on the biggest media scandal?" one of them asked recently. "It's an abuse so offensive to so many Americans - whether right, left or center - that you'll be able to galvanize media consumers of every persuasion: LOUD TV COMMERCIALS!"

We decided to research the subject and, in no time, began to share our parents' outrage.

For decades, citizens have complained about clamorous commercials . . . to Dear Abby and Ann Landers, newspaper editors, TV stations and government regulators. It's not just older people or parents of infants who are annoyed by leaps in loudness from program to commercial. Protests come from anyone who has been jolted - or awakened - by blaring commercials.

But loud commercials have never been stopped. Broadcasters, advertisers and federal bureaucrats are in denial - buffered by technical double talk and industry alibis.

Believe it or not, the broadcasters' defense goes something like this: The commercials are not louder than the programs, they just SOUND louder.

Can you imagine a restaurant responding to complaints that way - "No, the food here isn't too salty, it just TASTES too salty" - and getting away with it?

The TV industry has gotten away with it, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission - the agency supposedly overseeing broadcasters. But OVERSIGHT has two different meanings, and the FCC seems to regard its role as performing "error or omission" - not "supervision."

In 1984, despite thousands of complaints from consumers, the FCC ended years of inquiry into loud ads, saying that regulating the problem would be "virtually impossible." The FCC adopted the industry line, saying viewers are too "subjective" and afflicted by "psychoacoustic reactions" to realize that it may be the content or format of the commercial - not its loudness - that offends them.

Dismissing consumers as simpletons who wanted the commission to "simply require that commercials not be loud," the FCC contended that "only those from broadcast organizations" or audio backgrounds could understand "the truly complex issues in the loudness question."

The question isn't that complex. A few broadcast stations may simply be cranking up their commercials. But at most stations, ads sound louder than programming because they are "compressed" when recorded to eliminate the natural differences between loud and soft sounds. Every word or sound is at the same volume, which is then cranked up to the maximum legal limit.

If your program includes a riot scene or rocket's roar or siren, those fleeting sounds may be as loud as the commercial. But the commercial could well be much louder than 99 percent of the program.

Nevertheless, since the program and commercial have the same peak volume limit, the industry gets away with its silly claim: The ads only SEEM louder, but really aren't.

If your weekly income varied widely from $500 to $2,000, while Elmer's weekly income stayed at a constant $2,000 -- not only would Elmer SEEM wealthier than you, but darn it, he'd REALLY BE wealthier than you. Much wealthier.

So it goes with the louder commercials. The FCC could solve the problem by regulating the sound compression allowed in commercials so that their AVERAGE volume is compatible with the programs.

When the FCC washed its hands of this issue in 1984, the commission was chaired by Reagan appointee Mark Fowler, a regulator so opposed to regulating TV in the public interest that he likened television to a "toaster with pictures."

Blinded by anti-regulatory fervor, Fowler couldn't see the difference between a device that grills bread and one that dominates the cultural and political life of our country.

So what do we do about loud commercials? Here are some suggestions.

— Demand that the current FCC take action. Write your congressperson. Recruit Ralph Nader, Consumers Union and others to the cause.

— Complain to offending TV stations or networks, and to loud advertisers, threatening to boycott their products.

— Use your remote control device to mute all commercials in protest. Put a bumper sticker on your car: "I zap commercials!"

— And finally, write us with your own approaches to this problem (at P.O. Box 13193, Oakland, Calif. 94661).

This is a battle we plan to return to. Thanks, parents, for starting us on the crusade.

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