The CALM Act’s Teeth Are Officially Out

The CALM Act, which requires broadcast, cable, satellite, and other video providers to keep the volume of commercials at a level consistent with regular TV programming, went into full effect on Dec. 13. The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act required the FCC to mandate use of the ATSC A/85 specification as the basis for regulation of commercial-audio loudness.

The law recommends production, distribution, and transmission practices needed to provide the highest-quality audio soundtracks to the digital-television audience and focuses on audio-measurement, production, and postproduction monitoring techniques and methods to effectively control loudness for content delivery or exchange. It recommends methods to effectively control program-to-interstitial relative loudness, discusses metadata systems and use, and outlines modern dynamic range control.

Broadcasters, with sports programming very much in the lead, have largely implemented key benchmarks, such as the -24 LKFS (Loudness, K-weighted, relative to Full Scale) loudness-measurement standard. Manufacturers now offer a growing array of measurement, monitoring, and management tools for loudness.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), the original author of the law, says in a statement, “Earsplitting television ads have jolted and annoyed viewers for decades. With this new law, loud TV commercials that make consumers run for the mute button or change the channel altogether will be a thing of the past.”

Gordon Smith, president/CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), adds, “Broadcasters have taken the lead in addressing the complex technical challenges associated with this issue. NAB is pleased to work with Congresswoman Eshoo, [co-sponsor Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)], and the FCC as the CALM Act is implemented.”

Loud commercials have been a top consumer complaint to the FCC for decades and were listed as such in 21 of the FCC’s 25 quarterly reports between 2002 and 2009. According to a 2009 Harris poll, almost 90% of TV viewers are bothered by high commercial volumes, which prompted 41% to turn down the volume, 22% to mute the TV, and 17% to change the channel altogether. Prior to Eshoo’s legislation, official FCC policy recommended that consumers mute commercials if they found them to be excessively strident.

Non-compliance with the CALM Act is based on responses to complaints from consumers. If a complaint is filed with the FCC, the station involved has to provide the commission with a 24-hour spot check of its outgoing broadcast stream, within seven days of notification, to ensure compliance. Even if there are no further complaints, stations will still have to provide spot checks on an annual basis for two years. A single substantiated infraction can trigger a fine of up to $10,000.

Eshoo first introduced the CALM Act in the House in June 2008. Whitehouse’s companion bill passed the Senate unanimously on Sept. 29, 2010, and the House passed the legislation on Dec. 2, 2010. President Obama signed Eshoo’s legislation into law on Dec. 15, 2010. The FCC passed its final rules implementing the law in December 2011. The one-year interval between that and full implementation gave broadcasters needed time to integrate new technology platforms and monitoring techniques into its workflow.