New loudness rules released

As expected, the FCC has defined new rules, enforceable within a year, to ensure consistent audio levels for programs and commercials distributed by broadcasters and subscription TV providers in the U.S. The rules go into effect on Dec. 13, 2012.

The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act was signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 15, 2010, and adheres to a previously approved Recommended Practice for transmitting commercials, developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (and known as ATSC A/85 RP).

In a public meeting before the commission, Lyle Elder — a staff member in the FCC Media Bureau’s policy division — presented the rules, stating that compliance is now mandatory on all commercial advertising transmitted by broadcasters and other multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs). The order covers both the local commercials they insert and the embedded commercials they pass through as part of programming supplied by a network or programmer.

Under the order, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau will notify stations and MVPDs of potential non-compliance if it receives “a pattern or trend” of consumer complaints. Once a pattern of non-compliance has been established, fines of as much as $10,000 per occurrence could be levied.

“Since retroactively demonstrating compliance may be difficult, the order provides two methods by which entities may equally demonstrate ongoing compliance,” Elder said. “With respect to locally inserted commercials, stations and MVPDs must demonstrate that they installed, utilized and maintained the equipment and software in a commercially reasonable manner.”

Regarding embedded commercials, the order provides an alternative “safe harbor” approach, Elder said, that involves a combination of certification by programmers and spot checks by distributors.

“All stations and MVPDs will be in the safe harbor for commercials embedded in programming if the program provider has certified that its programming complies with the practice, and the station or MVPD has no reason to believe that certification is incorrect and the station or MVP certifies the compliance of its own equipment to transmit the program to consumers,” he said.

To promote a level playing field, “a certifying programmer must make his certification available to all distributors,” Elder continued. “To be in the safe harbor with regard to commercials and non-certified programming, larger stations and MVPDs must perform annual 24-hour spot checks of channels carrying non-certified programming.”

Large broadcasters with more than $14 million in annual receipts and the top four MVPDs, with 10 million or more subscribers, must spot check 100 percent of non-certified programming. MVPDs with fewer than 10 million but more than 400,000 subscribers must spot check 50 percent of non-certified programming.

“This approach will also ensure that national programming is spot checked on multiple days over the course of a year,” Elder said.

Once a larger station or program provider has completed two years of spot checks on its non-certified programming and found no evidence of non-compliance, it may stop making annual spot checks and remain in the “safe harbor.” Smaller stations and MVPDs are excused from annual spot checks.

The ATSC A/85 RP standard is fully compatible with the ITU’s BS.1770 specs (which European broadcasters will have to adhere to) and defines a set of methods to measure and control the audio levels (“loudness”) of commercials and programming in the digital domain.

As part of the latest ruling on Tuesday, Dec. 13, the FCC converted the ATSC’s 76-page recommended practice document into a set of enforceable rules. While the rules are now set, there is still a lot of information about implementation and enforcement that has yet to be worked out.