Loudness law goes into effect

Today, a new law requiring television volume be at a consistent level across programming and commercials officially went into effect, although broadcasters have known about and prepared for the mandate, and potential fines, for years. The main culprit to date has been the level of locally produced commercials.

As per the new mandate, the FCC will now begin enforcement of the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM, which was passed in the House and Senate more than a year ago. Broadcasters and cable operators were given a grace period to update their equipment. That grace period is now over, though some smaller stations were allowed to petition for extensions.

“Loud television commercials that make consumers run for the mute button or change the channel altogether will be a thing of the past,” said U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who sponsored the initial bill in the House.

Television stations will be responsible for monitoring the volume of network, syndicated and local advertising spots. Cable operators also are responsible for monitoring the volume of local and national commercials. Fines, if there are any, could reached $10,000 per infraction and will be levied onto the organization responsible for delivering the program, not the one that created it. Enforcement will be challenging, although the FCC will monitor viewer complaints as a means to identify non-compliance with the new law.

“If you don't annoy the viewer, there won't be any complaints; that’s one way to avoid fines,” said Ken Hunold, staff engineer, audio production at Dolby Labs.

Hunold has helped numerous stations at both the network and local levels install loudness monitoring equipment properly.

“The tools to do this are already available," he said. "Broadcasters just need to get their arms around how to apply them."

Most U.S. broadcasters appear ready, as suppliers of equipment that monitor and automatically adjust loudness levels all report an increase in business over the past 18 months. Indeed, the audio production technology manufacturing community has been talking about little else the past three years.

“We already had the majority of the equipment that was required to comply with the CALM Act and have been keeping our audio levels consistent,” Ray Carter, VP and general manager of WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “One of the requirements of the Act is to be able to log audio levels to prove compliance. As this requirement did not exist previously, most stations were required to purchase additional equipment to comply with that aspect of the rules.”

The cost, which he estimated in the “thousands of dollars, but not in the tens of thousands of dollars,” was “reasonable money spent for a reasonable effort.” The upgrades allow stations to log audio levels, proving compliance.

The CALM Act gives stations and providers a bit of flexibility in handling loudness complaints. According to the new standards (based on the ATSC A/85 specification),phone call or e-mail isn’t enough to warrant an FCC investigation, although patterns of them will demand review. Failure to meet these new modulation standards could result in fines.

A year ago, the FCC passed regulations requiring broadcasters and cable and satellite TV systems to maintain constant volume levels. A Harris poll taken around that time found that 86 percent of people surveyed said TV commercials were louder than the shows themselves — and, in many cases, much louder.

Normal listening levels average about 70 decibels for a typical TV broadcast. The level ranges from 60 decibels for a restaurant conversation to 80 decibels for a garbage disposal. However, levels on a TV channel could vary by as much as 20 decibels.

The FCC is soliciting viewer auditing during the transition. To report loud commercials, call 1-888-225-5322 with information such as time and date of the commercial, description of the ad, plus station or network. Information also can be mailed to Federal Communications Commission, Consumer & Government Complaints Division, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554.

“You can debate all day about whether the industry actually needed a federal law to control how loud programs are,” said Ken Hunold, a staff engineer at Dolby Labs, “but it certainly has raised awareness of loudness across multiple industries. And at the end of the day, bringing people together for a common cause is always a good thing.”