Before the rise of VCRs, DVRs, and premium channels, to watch television was to endure commercial breaks. That episode of Webster was free to view, but only if you considered sitting through margarine ads a fair trade-off.
Thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, monthly subscriptions have largely taken the place of ad blocks. But that doesn’t mean advertising is going away. In fact, it’s getting louder—and streamers aren’t exempt.
According to Business Insider writer Walt Hickey, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received more than double the typical number of complaints about excessively loud commercials between November 2020 and February 2021. That’s for broadcast, cable, and streaming spots. (Streamers like Hulu offer ad-supported tiers that are less expensive than ad-free subscriptions.)
Advertisers are, of course, looking to capture the attention of audiences. But the FCC is supposed to cap commercial audio volume via the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act of 2011, which put standards in place beginning in December 2012 for excessive increases compared to regular programming. While it’s not a government-endorsed volume knob, it does help monitor and regulate excessive ad noise by mandating it’s no louder than program dialogue.
The problem is that the FCC rarely enforces the CALM Act. And if it did, it would apply only to broadcast and cable. The FCC has no jurisdiction over Amazon or any other streaming service blasting your eardrums.
Instead, in the years following the introduction of the CALM Act, stations were expected to self-monitor and report any abnormalities. The honor system went about as well as you’d expect, with hardly anyone raising their hand so the FCC could scold or fine them. Instead, some advertisers devised a cheat, editing commercials to have 15 seconds of silence and 15 seconds of loud audio. On balance, it was an “average” volume compared to programming. (The FCC closed that loophole, at least.)
With lax enforcement and no oversight on streaming, what else can be done? On a consumer level, viewers can look for a volume leveling option on their television, streaming stick, or soundbar that will help moderate audio. This will vary by manufacturer, but going to “Settings” and looking under “Audio” should give you the option.
This adjustment can also help with varying audio levels between streaming services or channels. At TechHive, writer Jared Newman found YouTube TV was roughly 8 decibels higher than Netflix.
On an industry level, the Audio Engineering Society might be able to help. The organization sets media standards for audio that might be adopted as a matter of technical, not government, policy. Volume limits might be embedded in metadata of the programming itself. Until then, there’s always the mute button.