WASHINGTON — Here's a message TV viewers may not want to mute: The days of getting blasted out of one's easy chair by blaring TV commercials may soon be over.
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The House on Thursday passed a bill that would prevent advertisers from abruptly raising the volume to catch the attention of viewers wandering off when regular programming is interrupted.
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said it was her own "earsplitting experiences" that got her involved, recalling how the ads "blew us out of the house" when she watched television, already set at a high volume, with her late parents.
But she said her office also has gotten many messages of support and that at home people come up to her in restaurants and supermarkets to ask how the bill is doing.
"We can protect people from needlessly loud noise spikes that can actually harm their hearing," she said.
Under the legislation, now heading to President Barack Obama for his signature, the Federal Communications Commission would be required within one year to adopt industry standards that coordinate ad decibel levels to those of the regular program. The new regulations, applying to all broadcast providers, including cable and satellite, would go into effect a year after that.
"Every American has likely experienced the frustration of abrasively loud television commercials," the Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said when the Senate approved it in September. "While this may be an effective way for ads to grab attention, it also adds unnecessary stress to the daily lives of many Americans."
"It's not like the consumer has any choices," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. "It's a case where it's very difficult for consumers to express their sovereignty."
The FCC has been receiving complaints from consumers since the 1960s about jarring sound bursts when commercials come on, but the commission currently does not regulate program or commercial volume. Instead, it reminds viewers that newer TVs come equipped with circuits designed to stabilize volume differences or advises people that one solution is still to make aggressive use of the mute button on the remote.
The legislation would force the industry to abide by its own recommendations for audio standards as devised a year ago by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an organization of broadcasters.
Dick O'Brien, director of government relations at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said his group supports the bill because "we fully understand that advertising works best when it engages consumers, not alienates them."
He said enforcing volume control guidelines already proposed by the industry "in itself should make the viewing experience of the American public a much more user-friendly one."
Eshoo said there will be a "noticeable difference" in noise levels once the law goes into effect. It's a small bill in the greater scheme of things, she said, but "it will bring relief to millions of television viewers."
Managing the transition poses some technical challenges because the shows and ads come from a variety of sources, and may require TV broadcasters to purchase new equipment.
The legislation does give the FCC authority to issue waivers to broadcasters for hardship or other reasons.
One reason commercials may sound louder is a sound compression technique in which the difference between loud and soft sounds is compressed. The result is that while the peak sound levels of commercials and programs may not differ, the average levels of commercials are higher.
The title of the bill is the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM Act. The bill is S. 2847.
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