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U.S. House votes for CALM

The U.S. House of Representatives, in a voice vote on the floor, has passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (HR 1084) and sent it to the Senate. The bill would require the FCC to create a loudness standard preventing broadcast commercials from being louder than the program material into which they are inserted. Several other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, France and Russia, have already established such legal standards.

HR 1084 was introduced in early 2009 by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-CA. A voice vote of the full House of Representatives is generally called in situations where accountability of individual legislators is not considered of great import, and the legislation has substantial majority support.

The undesirable loudness of commercials is routinely one of the leading topics of complaint to the FCC. It was noted in discussion that the U.S. broadcast industry is fully aware of this issue, and that the industry’s Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standards body has already developed recommended practices for maintaining consistency in loudness for DTV transmission. This move toward self-regulation, while acknowledged as laudable, did not dissuade the committee from recommending the legislation.

The ATSC standard is contained in its document, “ATSC Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television.”

The original CALM Act gave the FCC one year to create a standard, which would come in effect one year after adoption and would apply to over-the-air broadcast stations and networks, cable operators and other multichannel program distributors. However, the bill was amended to require the FCC to implement the ATSC. An additional amendment permits the FCC to grant compliance waivers based on demonstrable financial hardship in implementation.

At the committee level, there was opposition to the CALM Act as unnecessary, noting that consumers do have TV remotes with volume controls and mute switches. It was also pointed out that the technical challenges to loudness control across a wide variety of signal chains are considerable, and that the wider dynamic range of entertainment programming encourages consumers to set levels to make the quieter passages easily audible.

It should be noted that the ATSC recommendations is merely a “recommended practice,” which would still need to advance through the “candidate standards” stage before eventually becoming a “published standard” within the group’s hierarchy. The CALM Act, if passed by the Senate and signed into law, would in essence take the recommended practice standards and make them mandatory. It seems clear that the ATSC standards are coming to the U.S. TV broadcast industry; whether it will be by voluntary action or deadlined government mandate are really the only questions.