In 2010, Congress passed the Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation Act, also known as the CALM Act, which would keep television commercials from being louder than the programs they sponsor. The law finally went into effect last week. In an interview originally aired in 2010, the Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Williamson explains to Bob why regulators haven't been able to turn down the volume of commercials until now.
BOB GARFIELD: And now a word from our sponsor.
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BOB GARFIELD: Needless to say, we’re not actually sponsored by the Ove Glove or Mama Lucia. We played those ads to illustrate the point of our next story, which is that compared to the content of our show, those ads probably blared out of your radio or MP3 player at jarringly high volume.
Well, when we originally aired the next interview, in 2010, Congress had just approved legislation that would require television advertisers to turn down the volume. The Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation, or CALM Act, would keep TV ads from being louder than the surrounding programs, following the standards set by the United Nations, of all institutions. The CALM Act passed in 2010, but it didn’t go into effect until last week. The Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Williamson has been following CALM. Elizabeth, welcome to OTM.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: It’s nice to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I have to tell you, this is a very, very personal subject for me, ‘cause I live in a household where I am held personally responsible for all that ails the universe, you know, whether it’s sunspots or terrorism or [LOWERS VOICE] the volume of a TV commercial [SPEAKS LOUDER] suddenly getting very loud and disturbing the household. I get the fisheye, “Garfield, turn that down.” I have to assume that others have been bedeviled by this for a long time.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Indeed, they have. For 50 years people have complained to the Federal Communications Commission about the loudness of their television ads, and the FCC after 1984 or so, discovered the mute button and recommended that people use that.
BOB GARFIELD: The mute button, yeah - but, you know, that requires a lot of proactive participation in a fundamentally passive exercise, TV watching. Why has the government deemed it my responsibility to preempt the wall of sound that hits me when the commercial break begins?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: At the time when they were really recommending the mute button – and they, they still do, do that – they were in a deregulatory mode, so they didn't really want to be in charge of regulating the sound of TV commercials. But really, the answer is more technological. People perceive sound differently, depending on how old they are, depending on the technology the sound is coming out of, depending on whether it’s conversation or other forms of noise.
BOB GARFIELD: I have to say that my personal experience is that the increase in volume is so abrupt that it’s hard to believe that the peak volume of the commercial matches anything that I've just heard in the actual programming that preceded it.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: When the engineers create these ads, the peak sound in the programming adjacent to the commercial had to be just slightly louder than the constant sound of the commercial. So what would happen would be you'd have a cop show, for example, and you'd have a bomb blast and then the bit of quiet dialogue, and then all of a sudden you'd have an ad that the entire volume of the ad was geared to the bomb explosion that you just heard. So it really would blast you off the couch.
BOB GARFIELD: And then the subsequent advertiser has to out-volume the previous advertiser and turns the dial from, you know, 10-1/2 to 11.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: They'd all try and outgun each other. And what had happened in the United States is that people had switched to digital, and you can pump a lot of sound down a digital signal without distortion. So you had crystal clear, really loud sound, and thousands of complaints coming into the FCC.
BOB GARFIELD: Technical issues had made this kind of a tough nut to crack, but Congress cracked it this time. What changed?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: The technology changed. People generally agreed on what constitutes loudness in human conversation. You could determine a loud voice from one that was comfortable for you to hear. But when it came to other types of noises, people varied widely. So what they decided to do was to create a machine that could average out sound, based on what’s comfortable for conversation because if people have a level of comfortability with the loudness of conversation, then the ads should be based on that.
BOB GARFIELD: This has got to be the safest, the most popular piece of legislation that’s come out of Congress since the mortgage interest deduction.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Anna Eshoo of California, Democrat from Silicon Valley, took this up because her elderly parents were with her and they cranked the TV and were blowing her out of her own home with the TV ads. So she pushed this legislation. She says that people are stopping her in the gas station, in the grocery store, on the street in her district and thanking her for this.
BOB GARFIELD: This is a woman who probably now could vote for cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, and maybe for declaring war against Rhode Island and still get reelected.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: [LAUGHS] Pretty close, according to Rep. Eshoo. She says that if she had saved 50 million children from some malady, she would probably generate less thanks than she has by pushing this legislation.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] This was the rare bit of bipartisanship and, you know, Republican/Democratic Kumbaya in the halls of Congress, but there, there was a moment when it wasn't all so bipartisan-y.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: There was some floor debate. The Republican critics of this bill thought that this was an unnecessary intrusion by the federal government into the private sector and private life. A couple of the legislators stood up and said, now, if we regulate the loudness of TV ads, what’s next? What’s the ridiculous extreme we could reach here? We could wind up regulating the types of things that are even advertised on TV. And, of course, it was pointed out to them [BOB LAUGHS] that, well, we have already done that.
BOB GARFIELD: Elizabeth, [LAUGHING] thank you very much.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: [LAUGHS] It’s been my pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Elizabeth Williamson is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Khrista Rypl and Annie Russell. And the show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week – no guarantees about her voice.