TV & Streaming

Streaming ads are way too loud. Who’s going to fix it?

An old problem is new again.
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5 min read

We’ve all been there: you’re blissfully streaming a TV show, not a care in the world. Then, a commercial cuts in at approximately the same decibel as a banshee’s shriek, forcing you to cover your ears or lunge for the remote.

It’s a common complaint that viewers have lodged against just about every ad-supported platform, including Hulu, Roku, and Paramount+. Some TV manufacturers, like Sony, have even published explainers on their websites explaining that it’s not their fault that ads are sometimes unbearably loud.

Unfortunately, though, there’s not exactly an easy fix. Loud ads have plagued the television industry for years—and the rise of more ad-supported tiers means that there may be even more obnoxious volume-shifts in your viewing future.

An old, loud problem

The reasoning for loud ads is simple: advertisers realized if they cranked the volume of their messages, they’d get noticed one way or another.

“TV advertisers have always known that ad breaks are when people go to the bathroom, to the kitchen, or are likely to move around,” explained Dave Morgan, CEO and founder of TV advertising platform Simulmedia. “Being able to make sure that your audio pops is a way to make sure that you’re memorable.”

But being memorable can also mean being annoying, and there have been efforts to regulate those annoyances away. In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission implemented the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, which requires ads on broadcast and cable TV to have the same average volume as the programs they run alongside. Viewers who notice egregiously loud commercials are encouraged to report violations to the FCC, which says they will then investigate noncompliance and could exact financial penalties.

The CALM Act requires broadcasters to adopt the A/85 Recommended Practice, authored by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, a nonprofit that recommends technical specifications for TV programming and ads. In theory, broadcasters and pay-TV providers are to regulate the volume of ads that play on their stations, and the technical set-up of traditional TV allows for oversight and enforcement at the TV-company level, Morgan explained.

“Every ad is received in the station, or the cable company, or the programmer, or the broadcast company, where it’s reviewed [and] it’s transcoded,” Morgan told Marketing Brew. “If the sound’s too high, they’ll literally say, ‘Hey, we’re taking the volume down.’”

In practice, though, loud ads have not been snuffed out. The FCC has never enforced the law, according to US Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat who authored the original CALM Act more than a decade ago.

And complaints about loud ads actually went up at the end of 2020 and into 2021, according to Insider.

Oldest trick in the book

Enter streaming, which promised to save us all from all of the frustrations of traditional TV. But loud ads, frustratingly, remain. There may be even more motivation than ever for advertisers to crank the volume, said Stephen Beck, the managing partner of the consultancy cg42.

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“In the world that we live in right now—the noisy world that we live in right now—one of the ways to get a little bit of attention is to get a little noisier,” Beck told Marketing Brew.

And getting noisier is easy when there are no existing enforcement mechanisms against it. This year so far, the FCC has received around 1,600 volume-related complaints, a majority of which are related to streaming services. As it stands, the FCC does not have jurisdiction over streaming services—meaning the FCC has no way to compel streamers to act.

There are efforts to change that: Eshoo, the legislator behind the original CALM Act, cosponsored legislation earlier this year that aims to update the CALM Act to address over-the-top viewing.

But in the absence of legislation, the issue comes down to the platforms. Ads on Hulu and ESPN+ adhere to CALM Act requirements, and the streamers apply audio normalization when ads are transcoded, Josh Mattison, VP, business operations, Disney Advertising, told Marketing Brew in an email. Christopher Lawton, communications manager, YouTube Ads, said the company does not disclose information about ad volume, but said ads on the platform adhere to Better Ads Standards, a set of guidelines set by the Coalition for Better Ads industry group aimed at improving digital ad experiences.  (Those standards do not include guidelines about ad volume.) Representatives for HBO Max, Paramount+, and Peacock did not share how commercial volume is managed on their platforms.

Beck said platforms won’t feel incentivized to address the issue unless it meaningfully affects their businesses.

“The platforms will wrestle with all of this if they are blamed for it,” Beck said. “Nobody blames the advertising agency [that] did it, because they don’t know who they are. Oftentimes, we blame the brand that’s interrupting us, not the platform that allowed it to happen. And that is the conundrum here.”

There may be reason to hope for a quieter future. Morgan is optimistic that an increasingly competitive streaming space will incentivize user experience improvements. “Publishers will impose more restrictions to make sure they don’t harm viewership by sticking in bad ads, and sound will be a big part of that,” he said.

Until then, though, some streaming services have suggested that complaining customers simply upgrade to the ad-free plan. At least their ears will thank them.

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