Since this past summer, Sling TV users have taken to Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter to complain about extraordinarily loud commercials that air while watching channels like HGTV and ABC Family. These commercials are so loud, these users note, that they scramble for the mute button to avoid waking their baby sleeping in the next room or jolting their unsuspecting upstairs neighbors.
Ordinarily, thanks to the CALM Act, which went into effect in December 2012, TV viewers can file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission when encountering commercials that are louder than the actual television programming they're watching. But thanks to a quirk in the law, users of the Dish Network-owned service are caught in a regulatory gap—the FCC has no regulatory power over internet-based TV services like Sling TV—that leaves them no recourse other than to ask Sling TV to fix the issue.
And more than three months after the complaints first appeared online, Sling TV users tell Motherboard that they're still struggling with the issue of loud commercials, which advertise everything from Dish Network's on-demand programming, LG smartphones, and Calphalon self-sharpening knives.
"In early October, I began telling my wife to turn the TV down every time it went to commercial," Reddit user thegauntlet told Motherboard in a Reddit private message. "It would wake me up. It wasn't a small volume increase either. It was just blaring [and] insanely loud."
"I noticed the loud commercials around July," Reddit user jjwax told Motherboard, also in a Reddit private message. "It started with Sling on demand commercials… They were super loud, like, immediately scramble for the remote and turn it down loud."
Another Reddit user, Eric Medin, who first noticed the issue over the summer while watching HGTV, recently used an iPhone app called Decibel 10th to get a better understanding of just how loud these commercials are in comparison to actual television programming. While watching Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause on ABC Family this week, the app recorded an average of 62 decibels during the movie. During the commercials, the app recorded an average of 72 decibels—a 10-decibel difference that, to Medin's ears, sounded about twice as loud. [Update: A few readers have helpfully written in to note that the decibel scale is logarithmic, meaning that a 10-decibel difference represents a 10-times increase in power.]
Medin shared with Motherboard the raw data recorded by the app, which is can be seen below:
In the provided image, the red boxes show the decibel reading of commercials and the green box shows the decibel reading of The Santa Claus (the black box is when ABC Family ran a blank screen with the words "we're in a commercial break"). Medin explained that the low end of the green box was typical of the volume level throughout the movie.
"Exacerbating the issue is that for certain programs (ie, sports) they will tend to run the same sets of ads over and over again," Medin told Motherboard via a private Reddit message, "so I got to hear the same ads for movies at blaring volumes."
To date, Sling TV's response to customers who contact the company has been to inform them that the loud commercials are a "known issue" that is being worked on—something Sling TV's customer service account on Twitter told me on December 4 (I have been a paying Sling TV customer since this past May).
Complaints on Reddit and Twitter date back to at least August, while publicly accessible complaints on Facebook date back to at least September. One Facebook user in Columbus, Ohio, even asked the FCC's Facebook account how she could file a complaint against Sling TV, perhaps unaware that the FCC has no regulatory power over internet-delivered services like Sling TV.
While the FCC did confirm to Motherboard that internet-based television services like Sling TV are exempt from the CALM Act, the agency did not explain why the regulatory gap exists in the first place, or why someone watching Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship on Time Warner Cable has the right to file a complaint about loud commercials, while someone watching that exact same show via Sling TV does not.
Sling TV did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
For now, consumers have little option but to keep their remote control handy while watching Sling TV, lest a sudden commercial break wake everyone in the house. Which is a shame, since many of the Sling TV users Motherboard spoke with said they were fans of the service, aside from this issue and a handful of other quirks.
"These loud commercials are by far my biggest complaint with SlingTV," said Reddit user zeugmatis. "It really is that bad… #firstworldproblems."
This article was updated on December 12 to clarify the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale.