TV Ads: Tolerating the Sound and the Fury

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California Representative Anna Eshoo has a plan. It’s not a plan to stimulate the economy, it’s not a plan to bring home the troops, and it’s not yet another health care plan.

Hers is a plan about TV commercials.

Specifically, she thinks they’re too loud. Recently, advertisers have started to spike the volume level on their commercials, meaning that as soon as “Grey’s Anatomy” takes a break, you’re going to be hit with an even more annoying CreditReport.com song than usual. Representative Eshoo thinks the answer to this is the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM), which would ban commercials deemed “excessively noisy.” I think we can all agree commercials in general are irritating (and the loud ones are even worse), but in this case it’s actually Eshoo’s bill that needs to be turned down.

When Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared at this year’s Emmy awards, she joked that she was honored to be presenting for the last official year of network television. It’s true that network TV ratings are beginning to slide across the board, especially in comparison with cable, its less-regulated sister. And on top of the deteriorating ratings that are alienating advertisers, millions of Americans now own TiVos and other recording devices that allow them to skip commercials entirely. Or else they utilize Web services to watch shows with limited or no advertising. So essentially, Americans have already removed the incentive for businesses to purchase air time and support network television. Why spend money and time on a commercial that no one is ever going to see?

Now, in addition to a public that blatantly ignores the commercials which advertisers produce, Eshoo wants to start weighing them down with trivial complaints about volume. It just could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Or, the straw that causes the camel, Fox, to cancel “American Idol.”

Furthermore, what is it that Eshoo specifically wants to accomplish? The current rules state that commercials can’t be any louder than the loudest part of the show they accompany. So you know when that really annoying girl starts to shriek on “America’s Next Top Model?” More than just irritating you in the moment, she’s setting the auditory level for your “One Tree Hill” preview. The beginning of that “CSI” episode where the guy gets shot? That’s how loud Jackie Johnson is allowed to tease the weekend weather.

Eshoo’s point is well-intentioned; the current regulations have one giant loophole. But her solution is entirely too vague. Prohibiting commercials that are “excessively noisy?” The level of subjectivity here is ridiculously high. You probably don’t have the same idea of “excessive noise” as, say, your grandmother. The people living in the apartment above you always seem to think there’s no such thing as too noisy, right? So who gets to decide what “loud” is for all of America? I respect Anna Eshoo and I certainly believe that she’s a creative lawmaker, but I’m not ready to let her decide how good my hearing is.

Finally, there’s the distasteful issue of over-regulation in general. The American public may be entirely in favor of making commercials quieter, but it’s the same public that reacts in surprise and indignation when the FCC levies fines against CBS for broadcasting Janet Jackson’s nipple. It’s no surprise which side Americans will take in a showdown between loud TV commercials and breasts, but it’s important to remember that the specific case is irrelevant. Once Americans begin to condone any sort of network television regulation, it becomes harder and harder to draw a line. Sure, it may annoy us that commercials are a little bit louder, but if we attempt to censor certain elements of broadcasting then we move even further down the slippery slope of regulation than we already have.

Obviously this is hyperbolic, but the point is that advertisers are the lifeblood of television. If we start imposing excess regulation on something as arbitrary as the volume of the commercial, we can’t be surprised if they decide to spend their money elsewhere. And suddenly Louis-Dreyfus isn’t joking anymore.

Jeremy Moore is a second-year English major. He can be reached at jsmoore@uci.edu.

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