The storm before the CALM?

Dec. 15, 2011 is the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, the law designed to provide relief from overly loud commercials within broadcast and cable TV transmissions. There has been shockingly little panic within the industry as this deadline approaches, most likely due to the fact that the entire broadcast ecosystem has been very aware of the loudness issue for several years now. In addition, manufacturers have been incorporating loudness monitoring, logging and control functionalities within audio production and monitoring products in order to make the transition as seamless as possible.

Of course, the FCC, which is charged with overseeing the adoption of the ATSC A/85 standard across the broadcast industry, has yet to finalize and publish the final rules of the road. The commission has scheduled a public vote on its proposed rule set for Dec. 13. The current Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is somewhat controversial in that it would charge local stations and cable operators with loudness control of all commercials, not just those that are inserted locally.

According to Ross Lieberman, VP of Government Affairs for the American Cable Association (ACA), the crux of the issue involves some key differences between the CALM Act and the ATSC A/85 recommended practice it embraces. While the A/85 spreads compliance responsibility to all phases of the production and delivery system — producers of programming and commercials, aggregators of content, local TV broadcasters, multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) and manufacturers of TVs and set-top boxes — the CALM Act only empowers the FCC to enforce those standards with broadcasters and MVPDs (cable, satellite and related distributors).

Lieberman points out that placing the burden of loudness enforcement on local cable providers is both unfair and impractical.

“The fork in the road is who inserted the commercials,” he said. “The cable operator’s responsibility under A/85 is to pass programming through to our viewers unaltered. In fact, in many cases, that is a contractual obligation with the program providers as well. So, if a commercial with incorrect dialnorm values is inserted upstream, the home viewer will be affected.”

Thus, the issue is not with the concept of loudness control, but rather with how violations can be detected and enforced. The key to successful implementation is uniform adoption throughout the broadcast ecosystem. Placing the full burden of uniform compliance on the final link of the delivery chain may be convenient, but is clearly not practical.

“It’s our position that the responsibility for correct loudness metadata should be at the insertion point of the commercials,” Lieberman said. “When a cable operator or local TV station is inserting the commercials, they should do so in compliance with the A/85 standards. That is unquestioned.

“Our advocacy is focused on insuring that the FCC sticks to what Congress specifically authorized them to do in the CALM Act.”

The final act in this drama is yet to unfold. The FCC’s final rule and order on CALM Act compliance will (probably) be published at its Dec.13 meeting. At that point, we will learn the exact date and form of the rules. And, as the FCC’s rulemaking procedure lumbers toward its inevitable conclusion, the fact of the matter is that most commercial producers, program delivery organizations and aggregators have been largely in compliance for some time now. In fact, Lieberman does not expect home viewers to experience any dramatic change in the volume of commercials.

“My expectation is that consumers won’t hear a difference,” Lieberman said. “I think the number of loud commercials has been significantly decreasing, not just in the past year since the CALM Act was passed, but also as part of the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.

“The equipment used is more capable, and I think it’s clear that people throughout the chain have familiarized themselves with the ATSC A/85 standard. So most people are already in compliance, and the change for consumers on Dec. 15 will not be a significant one.”

In effect, the CALM Act is an affirmation that the broadcast industry is — with the specter of government intervention — fully capable of addressing technical problems. With the acceptance of loudness standards elsewhere in our connected world and the availability of metadata-based equipment, it became clear that the issue of loud commercials was one that could and should be addressed. The CALM Act would have been hugely controversial just a decade ago. Today, it is a virtual fait accompli that brings welcome standardization to production workflow while improving the experience of the home viewer.