Our Commercials Go Up To Eleven

Lydia Kulbida this week asked an important question: Why is Congress wasting their time trying to regulate the volume of TV commercials? Sure, it’s frivolous, but there’s another reason the law is misguided: TV commercials are already the same volume as everything else.

We’ve all noticed that commercials seem louder than the programs, but the key word here is seem. The truth is that they are not louder, but they are just mixed differently. There’s a good explanation of this in an MSNBC.com story from 2007:

“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.”

Maximum volume is a standard across the industry —but there are tricks that audio engineers use to make things stand out. I used to have radio commercials done by Pat Tessitore at Cathedral Sound in Rensselaer. Whenever I would hear one in my car it would jump right out of the speakers, grab you by the ears, and yell “HEY! LISTEN TO ME!”.

It’s not that the commercial was louder than the other content —but the way it was mixed created the perception that it was louder. Spots I made back at the TV station always sounded like crap because we didn’t know Pat’s secrets. Darn him and his audio wizardry!

So, on Tuesday the House passed The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM), a measure that would force the TV industry to make sure everything’s the same volume. But you know what it will do? Probably just make the programs louder, not the commercials softer.

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