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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/20/2007 12:40:58 PM ET 2007-02-20T17:40:58

This week, I’m dipping into my reader mailbag to field some of your questions. Bob K. wants to know why the volume on his television set blares during commercial breaks. Gary W. wonders if turning off his computer at the end of each day is preferred. And Neil D. want to know what the heck that omnipresent CE logo means.

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Why is it that TV stations are permitted to raise the volume during the commercials? I find it very aggravating.
Bob K.

Ask any TV station this question and you’ll get the same answer, “the commercials are no louder than any of the other programming we broadcast — they just sound louder.”

It’s true, the station isn’t turning up the volume when the commercials run, but that’s not the complete answer. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need to reach for the remote to turn down the volume during the commercial break. So what’s really going on here? This gets a little complicated, so stick with me on this.

The Federal Communications Commission does not specifically regulate the volume of TV programs or TV commercials. However, broadcasters are required to have equipment that limits the peak power they can use to send out their audio and video signals. That means the loudest TV commercial will never be any louder than the loudest part of any TV program.

A TV program has a mix of audio levels. There are loud parts and soft parts. Nuance is used to build the dramatic effect.

Most advertisersdon’t want nuance. They want to grab your attention. To do that, the audio track is electronically processed to make every part of it as loud as possible within legal limits. “Nothing is allowed to be subtle,” says Brian Dooley, Editor-At-Large for CNET.com. “Everything is loud – the voices, the music and the sound effects.”

Spencer Critchley, writing in Digital Audio last month, explained it this way: “The peak levels of commercials are no higher than the peak levels of program content. But the average level is way, way higher, and that’s the level your ears care about. If someone sets off a camera flash every now and then it’s one thing; if they aim a steady spot light into your eyes it’s another, even if the peak brightness is no higher.”

There’s also what Brian Dooley of CNET.com calls “perceived loudness.” If you’re watching a drama with soft music and quiet dialogue and the station slams into a commercial for the July 4th Blow Out Sale, it’s going to be jarring. If you happen to go from the program into a commercial for a sleeping pill, one with a subtle soundtrack, it probably won’t bother you. 

Help is on the way! Last month Dolby Laboratories announced it has developed technology to level out the sound differences that take place during shows and between TV programs and commercials. You pick the volume you like and the Dolby software will make the adjustments in real time automatically.

Dolby Volume could show up in some TV sets by the end of this year or early next year.

Should I leave my home computer running 24/7 or turn it off when I am done with it for the day? I want to save energy, but I’ve heard it’s hard on the machine if you keep turning it on and off. Which is better?
Gary W.

I contacted several experts on this one and they all agreed that you won’t hurt your computer by turning it off when you’re not using it.

Dean Gallea, test program leader for computer technology at Consumer Reports, says “it is no more strain on a PC to shut it down and restart than it is to put it into standby mode and resume.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s “Energy Star” Web site states, “The less time a PC is on, the longer it will last.” They recommend turning off both the CPU and monitor if you're not going to use your PC for more than 2 hours.

John Frey, HP’s Manager for Environmental Strategies, told me there is no reason to keep a computer running all the time and every reason to turn it off when it’s not in use for extended periods.

Turning off an unused computer will not only reduce your energy bills, he says, it will reduce system-wide energy demand, which will help cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Frey says HP ships all of its desktop computers and monitors with the energy-saving setting enabled. Just one PC with the power saving setting enabled, he says, saves enough energy to power a 75 watt light bulb continuously for over a year.

For every 12 machines left in this mode, Frey says, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (needed to generate electricity) is equal to taking one car off the road for a year.

By the way, screen savers do not save energy. They can actually result in greater energy use if they keep the power-down feature from activating.

I see a CE logo on just about every product I buy these days. What does it mean?
— Neil D.

Certain products sold in European Union countries must meet health and safety requirements. These products include medical devices, machinery, toys, electrical equipment, electronics, household appliances, and recreational craft. The CE mark indicates the product meets these mandatory safety standards.

Because so much global trade takes place these days, it’s easier for many companies to put CE mark on all of its products, including those shipped to North America.

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