Wednesday, October 14, 2009

This Time I Agree With The Democrats

That's right, I agree with the Democrats. Strange huh? Here’s the what and why. Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill to require the FCC to prohibit commercials from being shockingly loud, and I support that. Get off my lawn you damn kids!!!

Nobody likes loud commercials. . . nobody. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t complained about them at some point or another. People I know clutch their remotes waiting to mute the commercials. Others complain repeatedly to their cable companies and the networks, but to no avail. This is more than a minor annoyance.


The networks are aware of this. I’ve seen a dozen interviews in which network executives felt compelled to address the sheer volume of complaints they received on this topic. Most lied. I recall an executive for the Sci-Fi Channel (aka NBC, aka USA Network, aka AMC, aka Bravo, etc.) once ludicrously claiming that they had no control over the volume of the commercials. Like helpless sheep they could only play what they were given. Pathetic.

So with the networks refusing to address this issue and with vast armies of people nearing riot stage, Congress stepped in last year with the Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM). What this law did was to limit the loudness of commercials to a maximum of the loudest part of the program during which they were shown. But this didn’t work. If the show included a gun shot, a falling plate, or a shriek, the commercials still could be jarringly loud. Advertisers also found ways to cheat by compressing the sound, which gives greater volume without violating the upper limit.

So Congress is stepping in again. Rep. Eshoo (. . . gesundheit) will hold hearings with the intent of giving the FTC the power to prohibit commercials from being “excessively noisy or strident.” Good.

But wait, the industry says, they’ll fix the problem. Yeah sure. According to Mark Richer, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, a “nonprofit” (aka “lobbying organization”) whose members include broadcast networks and cable operators, ATSC is working to develop “voluntary standards” to fix this problem:
“We’ve been working for over two years to help broadcasters, cable operators, and others to come up with a uniform strategy so we can minimize the subjective perception of the volume change during commercials.”
Well, if you put it that way, what were we thinking? Clearly, it takes more than two years and the threat of Congressional action to write the following phrase on a napkin: “Let’s not turn up the volume on the commercials”! (Assuming it even needs an agreement. . . or a napkin.)

Sorry Mark, no one’s buying your el toro kaka. Why you ask? Because I can translate lobbying-whore speak into English, and here’s what you said:
“After ignoring this 'problem' for years, we were horrified when Congress started to act. So we created a fake industry group to pretend to create a solution to the problem, in the hopes that Congress wouldn’t act and we could keep doing exactly what we had been doing. But Congress acted anyways.

Fortunately for us, Congress blew it and we found glorious, glorious loopholes. But now they want to plug those loopholes. So we again ask that you not act. Trust us to fix this problem. . . a problem that we not only failed to address for twenty years, but that we lied about and that even now we won’t admit exists.”
That’s what Mark would have said if he wasn’t lacking the shame gene. Oh, and be sure to note his description of the problem as a “subjective perception.” That’s legal speak for “something that stupid people claim to believe in, but we all know isn’t a real problem, wink wink.”

So should we trust the same people who created this problem, have allowed it to grow unchecked for twenty years, and profit from it? Should we trust them to fix that same problem with voluntary standards? Don’t make me laugh.

But I’m a conservative with libertarian leanings. Should I really support regulation? Actually, there’s no inconsistency here. Here’s why:

In a functioning market environment, new companies will move into a market to satisfy consumer demand if the companies in the market fail or refuse. This is called market discipline. But when companies are insulated from competition, there is no market discipline. What you get is called market failure.

Market failure alone does not necessarily warrant regulation, though it should be a prerequisite. But when the market failure is caused by an oligopoly market (like the television industry), regulation becomes much more warranted. And in this instance, there is one more factor that pushes this over the top -- the oligopoly was created by the government.

The government created these oligopolies by rationing bandwidth, by allowing consolidation to the point of oligopoly, and by regulating what channels can (and must) appear on provider networks. This prevents competitors from appearing and allows the existing companies to hide behind the protections of government regulation.

When an oligopoly exists because of government action, then I have zero heartburn with regulating that oligopoly if it is non-responsive to consumer needs. If you want to make your living hiding behind government regulation, then we have the right to tell you what to do.


22 comments:

Writer X said...

So, it's not my imagination that the commercials always get louder. That's good to know. I always figured this was a conspiracy to get everyone to buy TiVo.

This also strikes me as one of those "how many people does it take to change a lightbulb" situations. There is actually an "Advanced Television Systems Committee"?

Thanks, Andrew. Couldn't agree more with your conclusions! No pity.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, It's a marketing gimic. They know that people tune out commericials, so they need to find a way to get noticed. By turning up the volume they basically shock you into paying attention.

The rest of their behavior is classic Washington "bad guy" behavior. They deny they are doing this and accuse us of imagining it. Then they deny that there is anything they can do about it. Then they form a group because clearly there is nothing any of them could do alone. Then they lobby Congress not to act because they are "working on it" and because any Congressional action would be too expensive to implement. Then they find a loop hole in the new law and they fight to keep that open. Then they finally fix it and they brag about how they fixed it.

I've seen this time and time again. Everything from airbags to taking lead out of paint.

Writer X said...

BTW, I love the image for your post today. Wasn't that from ERASERHEAD?

AndrewPrice said...

That's a Maxell ad from the early 1980s. It took me forever to find the dang thing, but I think it's very appropriate.

patti said...

i HATE loud commercials. and i can testify the gimmick backfires in my casa. we mute those suckers. and curse the idiots who thought it was a good idea. FAIL.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, I think that's the irony that the commericial guys don't get -- they can trick you into paying attention, but all that does is generate ill will.

Most of the people I know rightfully hold the conduct of the ad agency against the product.

CrispyRice said...

I'm totally with Patti. I mute ads with regularity and sometimes make note of the worst offenders with evil plans not to buy their products. Clearly, my plan has failed.

Actually, I watch most of my TV series via Netflix anymore so I don't bother with ads. It's a much nicer world...

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, Good solution. I don't know anyone who lets this loud commerical trick work on them: "Gee, that was obnoxious, I should seriously consider their product."

JG said...

Well since I only watch things on DVR, I never have to listen to the amped-up commercials these days. HA-HA! I beat your system!!

AndrewPrice said...

JG, Another great way to beat the commercials! I understand that every time you turn on a DVR, an ad-man somewhere takes a drink.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I've been around longer than most here, and I've seen this come and go. It got pretty bad in the Fifties and Seventies, but they seemed to have gotten some control. This past year has been the worst of any of those years. The difference between the program and the show is often the difference between barely hearing the dialog and being blown out of the room. It's not just annoying, it's obscene. And with all due respect, the commercial I will hear loudest of all, two rooms away, is anything with Billy Mays. They won't let the guy rest in peace, and they won't let my ears stop bleeding.

USArtguy said...

I agree with the premise that some TV commercials are too loud. They annoy the heck out of me too.

Neither will I lose any sleep over the regulation of a government created oligopoly. Your analysis of the obfuscation is right on.

That said, I think your righteous ire is misplaced. Before I go any further, I have to say I'm not an engineer and do not play one on TV ;-) I'm a print guy, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. However, I have been around engineers and have taken TV production classes and interned at a local TV station.

I don't believe it's a network thing. All network programming, including national commercials --and empty space-- for local ads, is carried ("relayed") by the local affiliate and then sent to you. Even satellite TV is merely a rebroadcaster, however they can control the volume too. So the Networks don't broadcast or cable-cast directly to your house. You receive the signal the middle man sends.

There is plenty of opportunity at the affiliate level to screw with the sound. Some kind of warning signal is sent with the programming that only the affiliate engineers are aware of and the viewer at home never sees. On radio it's a tone. That 1) allows them to place local/regional ads and 2) gives them ample time to turn up the sound. On rare occasions you might get a glimpse of the signal/message "insert commercial here".

Plus, affiliates are all different. They don't all have the same equipment and it's not all the same age or quality which can account for different results from one station to another. Although, I have read SOME affiliates --as a matter of policy-- run all commercials louder than they receive them all the time. A simple test for this is to watch, or rather listen, to the same commercial on two different stations on the same set. That will only work with broadcast though as all your cable signals will come from the one company you have your service with. It may work with cable if you have a pal with a different service you can visit.

I'm also not so sure the ad agency should be held accountable here either. Advertising is speech bought and paid for by the client who has final say on how ads look and sound. If the client wants her ad volume pumped up, the agency can object, but will ultimately have done what the customer wants. Which brings up another point: the vast majority (95% +) of agencies create ideas and do little production themselves. TV/Radio production is usually hired out, and then jobs are usually bid on so the agency can get the best for the client's budget. Again we run into the different machinery problem. Add to that local ads that are done "in-house" (car dealerships for example) then sent in to the affiliate who is only going to play it, not remaster it.

So, to conclude: yes some ads are way too loud. Are some ads made to be louder? Sure, but not necessarily on purpose. Who has the single most control over how ads are aired? Affiliates. Solutions? Require a "governor" on their equipment. iPods come with a volume limiting setting, require TV stations to install something similar that will "equalize" the volume. It's all software nowadays so it shouldn't be that hard to do. Who to complain to? I'd say the affiliate/cable/sattelite provider first, then the advertiser ( the product maker/service company who will then turn around and blame their ad agency).

USArtguy said...

Now the Music industry on the other hand...

http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null/33549

and

http://funl.blogspot.com/2007/06/loudness-war.html

StanH said...

Good! I don’t have a brain tumor. I hate most commercials and hurry for the mute or change the channel. Perhaps it has something to do with this economy, Madison Ave. feels they have to scream at us? As was stated the DVR is God’s gift to mankind.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, My response:

1. There are three reason to believe it's not accidental: (1) not all channels do it, even when they are broadcast over the same system, (2) this is a relatively new phenomima (15-20 years) meaning it wasn't always true, (3) they chose to lie about the problem existing rather than discuss it openly, and (4) they have caught some compressing their sound to increase the volume in violation of CALM. All of that suggests to me that this is intentional.

2. In terms of who is to blame, it doesn't really matter to me at this point. They are all under the control of the networks -- the networks can set technical requirements for advertisers and broadcast requirements for affiliates. Thus, they have the power to fix this if they so chose.

And if they truly aren't the problem, if it is someone else beyond their control, then they should have spoken up and explained the problem years ago rather than participate in the lie that there is no problem and only try to join the debate when Congress started to act. To me, that made them the boy who refused to cry wolf, and I no longer give them any credibility in this debate.

By the way, I'm using the term advertisers generically, I'm not distinguishing between them for the same reason that whoever is in charge of the account can pass along technical requirements to whoever they hire to handle the work.

Tennessee Jed said...

Nice post Andrew. It is all very true. Also, it has been exacerbated by the analog/digital conversion and HD programming. Ever watch a HD digital feed cut to a local non-HD commercial? PAINFUL! My only question is, are our Republican friends in Congress lying low on this issue or is it a bi-partisan boondoggle based on who gets lobbyist cash?

USArtguy said...

"By the way, I'm using the term advertisers generically"

Yeah after I thought about it a while I figured that was probably what you meant, but I can't find the "retract and fix your comment, dummy" button. The curse of the "publish" command.

You're right about the industry dodging the blame, but I still think the best bet is to complain loudest to the locals.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks Jed. Surprisingly, both Democrats and Republicans are on board for this -- though it took them long enough.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, Trust me, I do think advertisers are a good thing -- though some of their practices annoy me. :-) This one issue just really bugs me though.

I wish I could offer an "edit" button, but Goggle doesn't have one -- just the delete button. That makes fixing typos rather difficult.

P.S. You may be right about the locals, but whoever is to blame, it looks like they waited too long and now Congress is going to force a solution upon them.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Goggle?????? Or was that a typo? LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Typo, I meant "Google".

I'm sorry Mr. Google, please don't punish our website or lose my e-mails!

(just in case)

MegaTroll said...

I hope they pass this thing. I can't stand loud commercials and everyone is doing it now.

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