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November 23, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why does my volume increase during commercial breaks?

No, you didn't sit on your remote's volume button. Your program's just gone to commercials.

Or, at least, so goes the thinking.

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Though the Federal Communications Commission enacted law in 2012 that regulated commercial volume, it doesn't mean all high-volume commercials have stopped. Curious to know more on the subject, we reached out to Joseph Glennon, assistant professor of advertising at Temple University's School of Media and Communication.

Why does volume go up during a commercial break?

Well, I think there's even some debate whether it is in fact happening. It may be a question of perception versus reality. There's a couple things in play. The first is, you have the normal narrative ebb and flow of a program, where parts of it will be louder than the commercial that comes next, and parts of it will be softer. So that's one factor. There's also the general nature of the program that you're watching. So, if you're watching something quiet and then a commercial comes on that's at a normal volume, it's going to feel a lot louder than the programming itself. Or the opposite may be true if you're watching a football game or a sporting event, or 'The Voice' or something. I think that's something that would have to be controlled for and examined before you can really hang your hat on the fact that this is really happening.

Can you explain what the CALM Act is? There was legislation passed to address this a few years ago.

The FCC regulation in 2012, that's based on the average volume. The average volume of a commercial has to be no greater than the average volume of the programming it appears within. Like any average there's going to be highs and lows, and it's a matter of figuring out what that average volume level is and the engineers are supposed to mix accordingly. When you're dealing with 30 seconds of advertisement, it's quite possible the first bit of the ad is going to be louder than what comes after it. And so that would throw off that. And it's not a question of whether anyone is actually enforcing that regulation. There are so many other things that can go on, and frequently with the FCC, until something becomes a complaint, they're not going to actively investigate anything.

So yes, there is a law in place, and it's a recent one people should be aware of. Is it enforced? I'd say highly unlikely. Is it a widespread problem and an intentional attempt to infuriate the public or otherwise manipulate them? I also think that's unlikely. The recording engineers involved who put together 30 seconds of a commercial will want the mix to just be as sweet as they can make it, as rich in dynamic as it can be, and I think that's the extent of – it's been my experience, in 22 years of advertising, that no one has set out to say 'Hey, let's make this audio very loud so that it really stands out from the programming.' In fact, some of the commercials more memorable over the last three years have been quiet. If you think back to the famous Super Bowl commercial about the farmer for Ram trucks, it's the quietest commercial I've seen in the last 10 years and it was wonderfully effective.

What I think is interesting about that legislation is it doesn't actually regulate the internet. And most of the time I experience a loud commercial, it's on a computer. Odd to think they chose not to address that as recently as 2012.

I think it would have shown incredible government foresight for them to have seen it coming four years ago. If you look at viewing levels even just over the last two years, online versus over the air, it's jumped. It would have been highly unlikely for government regulators to see this coming. Networks are struggling with this, and that's their job. The government has a lot of other things to worry about. That's the thing, too: You have to wonder about where and how the commercial programming is inserted into the feed. And that may be a breakdown in the system too. Who is responsible for meshing those two pieces of programming, entertainment and advertising? For years, cable systems who were in charge of inserting local commercials and retail things had a great problem trying to insert things at the right time and volume. That problem has just been moved to the internet too.

I've seen suggested CALM Act loopholes online, like increasing the volume of a program just before a commercial break to justify commercial loudness, or even inserting moments of quiet in a commercial to sort of balance things out. Do you think that's happening?

There are so many moving parts that I think it would be hard for that to be orchestrated in terms of volume control. There have been times where programs are edited for broadcast and the program ends at a certain spot, and when it goes to syndication, the commercial breaks move. So that's a real challenge to try and orchestrate the volume and the ebb and flow and narrative arc and all those elements. Plus, you have to worry about commercial inventory. It may be that if I'm watching a show on my computer, based on cookies all over my computer, I may see a different commercial than you do. So there's another variable.

Anything to add? 

This problem has been around since Uncle Milty and TV in black and white. No one will ever be happy about the interruption of a commercial, and anything that people can point to as an added inconvenience or annoyance is going to be exaggerated.