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HOW LOUD IS LOUD?

The new television season is here. That means we can relax in front of the tube as we're drawn in by new episodes of our favorite shows and blasted out of our chairs by loud commercials. New season or not, some things never change.

Given the fact that complaints about loud commercials date back to television's adolescence in the 1950s, one can reasonably ask why the Federal Communications Commission allows advertisers to shout at us.

Well, to paraphrase an infamous expression, it depends on what your definition of loud is.

Under federal regulations, a commercial is not allowed to be louder than the loudest part of the show it's sponsoring. The problem is that volume is not measured by a pair of human ears. It's measured by machines recording decibels, and commercials stay within the legal decibel range.

The reason commercials seem to bellow at us from across the family room is because the shows themselves use the entire spectrum of sound, from whispers to soft music to car chases. When the commercial comes on, the entire 30 or 60 seconds is packed with sounds at the high end of the spectrum.

Compared to what you've been listening to for the previous 10 minutes, it seems much louder.

The FCC last looked at the question of loud commercials in 1984, and concluded there was no way to fairly write regulations governing the "apparent loudness" of TV commercials. Perhaps it should revisit the question.

If commercials seem louder to most people, then they are, by definition, louder. Serious consideration should be given to changing the volume standards from the highest range of the show to some average decibel figure.

Until then, however, our options are somewhat limited. We can reach for the remote's "mute" button or call our favorite electronics store and order television sets with automatic volume adjusters.

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