Spots are noisy because they can be. The FCC doesn't make any regulatory distinctions between the sound levels of commercials and the sound levels of programs. "The peak levels of commercials don't exceed the peak levels of programming," admits Spencer Critchley, a communications consultant in California. "But the experience is similar to having a flashbulb go off every now and then versus a spotlight shining in your eyes all the time." In other words, an entire commercial can be broadcast at the same level as an extra-loud (but fleeting) explosion on 24.
Advertisers like it noisy. Commercials crank every sound level to maximum volume in a bid to get your attention. "In commercials, everything is equally loud -- the voices, the music, the sound effects," says Brian Cooley, editor-at-large at the technology review site cnet.com.
Contrast counts. If you're watching a tender moment unfold on Brothers & Sisters just before a raucous ad for a monster-truck rally, the spot will be startling -- making an already loud commercial seem even louder.
To combat the problem, you can purchase a TV sound regulator for about $50. Unfortunately, many aren't compatible with HDTV or TiVo, but higher-tech relief is on the way. In Japan, some televisions now come with built-in technology that automatically balances sound levels, and the technology should appear stateside soon. In the meantime, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California has introduced the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (the CALM Act) in Congress in an attempt to battle excessive noise. For now, though, you'll have to strike a deal: Whoever wields the remote must also monitor the Mute button.