House Tries To Turn The TV Volume Down

All is CALM as Eshoo bill moves to Senate

Last June we reported on the renewed efforts by Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) to rid society (well, U.S. society, at least) of that scourge of the TV viewing experience, loud commercials. Having tried unsuccessfully to turn the volume down on TV advertising last year, she came back again last February, legislative mute button in hand.

And this year it looks like she may have a winner with H.R. 1084 – the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (or CALM Act) – which was recently passed by the full House. But it took some tinkering to get there.

As originally drafted in February, her bill would have required the FCC to prescribe regulations to assure that: (a) ads accompanying video programming (from broadcasters and/or MVPDs) not be “excessively noisy or strident”; (b) ads not be “presented at modulation levels substantially higher” than the programming they accompany; and (c) the “average maximum loudness” of ads not be “substantially higher” than the “average maximum loudness” of the accompanying programming.

We criticized that draft because the bill left vague and undefined a number of crucial terms. We also noted that it would be difficult for the FCC to come up with enforceable rules based upon the bill’s requirements.   After all, this isn’t the first time the government has tried to address this issue.

While we would, of course, like to take credit for our persuasive prose, we really don’t know whether Rep. Eshoo happened to check out our post, but this Fall she submitted a completely rewritten bill with new wording that satisfies many of our earlier criticisms. The revised bill requires the FCC to write regulations incorporating by reference a Recommended Practice (“Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television”, Document A/85:2009) promulgated by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) in early November. ATSC, of course, is the international non-profit organization that established technical standards the FCC adopted for all DTV broadcasting. ATSC developed the new Recommended Practice to provide the television industry “with uniform operating strategies that will optimize the audience listening experience by eliminating large changes in sound levels”, according to ATSC President Mark Richer.

The new ATSC standard arises from the DTV transition. The old analog methods of modulating the audio portion of television broadcasting aren’t effective in the all-DTV universe. In 2007, recognizing the need for new standards for the then-impending (since-arrived) DTV broadcasting age, ATSC asked a group of specialists within its membership to study the issue. The Recommended Practice was the result. It helps solve the problem of modulating loudness between speech (the level for which most audiences set their volume control) and other sounds within the programs, as well as between programs and commercials and from channel-to-channel, without excessively reducing the expanded dynamic range (over 100 dB) that DTV programming offers. To be effective, the new Recommended Practice applies to the entire chain of the television program system (i.e., program production, broadcast, delivery of the programs through cable and satellite systems, and output by TV sets owned by consumers).

The adoption of ATSC’s Recommended Practice enabled Eshoo to focus her bill considerably, simply by incorporating that Recommended Practice by reference.

While the revised bill appears to correct problems we saw in earlier versions, it is still not completely worry-free.

First, the revised bill would make mandatory standards which the ATSC apparently intended to be voluntary (why else call it a “Recommended Practice”?). Adoption of ATSC-established “recommended practices” is, of course, generally good policy and certainly to be encouraged. But such “recommended practices” are technically issued to provide “guidance”. If the bill becomes law, what was a matter of recommended “guidance” will become a matter of statutory imperative.

Second, there is the matter of the cost of complying with these technical requirements. Rep. Eshoo’s revised bill provides for a one-year period after the effective date of the new FCC regulations, for broadcasters, cable and other multichannel video providers to comply. The bill also provides for the FCC to grant waivers to entities demonstrating that obtaining the equipment to comply with the new rules will result in “severe financial hardship”. This raises an obvious and important practical question: exactly how expensive is the new equipment going to be?

Our third concern is that the Recommended Practice specifically alludes to “the possibility that compliance with this Recommended Practice may require the use of an invention covered by patent rights”. There is already a nasty fight over patent license fees between DTV set manufacturers and the holders of key patents required to comply with the ATSC’s standard for DTV adopted by the FCC. A similar fight could be in store if compliance with the Recommended Practice requires purchase of equipment covered by patents.

But these quibbles didn’t appear to faze our elected representatives. The CALM Act, as revised, flew through the House on December 15.  A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate, so the stars seem to be aligning for passage – and there is no reason to expect any possibility of a veto here.  So everyone in the TV biz might want to take a gander at the ATSC’s Recommended Practice, because it looks like it may become the Law of the Land before too long.

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Comments (8) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Ed Walker - December 22, 2009 7:55 PM

I almost want to say "leave it to the marketplace". There's (at least) on cable outlet that shows movies 24/7, but the commercial breaks come in far louder than the program material.

Complaining months via their website brought a response that simply stated that they can't control the volume between the movies and commercials. Having been in the business and installing audio limiters, compressors and similar devices (think "Optimod"), this was a stupid reply to a viewer that wouldn't have been resolved taking it further.

Since then, my choice has been not to watch that channel. Case closed.

Mike Marcus - December 26, 2009 6:33 PM

When I joined FCC in 1979 this was a common topic. At the time it was generally concluded that not objective measure correlated well with people's perceptions of sound levels from a TV - which is also influenced by the video content being shown.

I hope the ATSC recommended practice solves this but I doubt it. At least FCC can blame ATSC when the complaints come rolling in. I doubt it will have the impact the backers hope, but agree that this is a longstanding complaint issue.

It is also likely that ad producers will find new ways to make commercial appear loud while keeping the same reading on the ATSC gadget.

Howard Ball - January 6, 2010 8:35 PM

I am hard of hearing. These damn loud commercials make me want to?????? I can go outside, but then have to run inside when an ad comes on because you can hear it all over the neighborhood. Now I suppose it's up to me to buy another expensive gadget to do something to fix something that should not be allowed. How stupid are the people that are broadcasting this crap that they don,t realize that they certainly are not convincing anyone to buy anything, but just making people mad????? How can this be allowed?????
I am hard of hearing but these commercials are way too loud.

Bob Wehner - February 10, 2010 11:01 PM

I am a senior citizen, and for years I have asked other people if they also despise loud commercials, and I have yet to talk to anyone who answered no. I would not knowingly do business with a company that comes in my home and attempts to knock me through the wall with their loud commercial unless I had no other choice.

lesley taufer - November 12, 2010 3:00 PM

Yeah. It might be in time for the last vestiges of my hearing. Hmm? What did you say?

Debra H. - March 15, 2011 12:30 PM

I have become outraged at the fact that I have to watch TV with my finger on the volume button of my remote. We just recently purchased a new TV with "Auto Volume" capability. Sorry to say the problem still exists. My Cable Company has a volume problem not just with commercials, but also channel to channel. I really, really hope there is a permanent fix within my lifetime, I have a grandson and I am worried about his longterm hearing.

Debra B. - April 4, 2011 9:08 AM

I agree with every one on the volume on the TV. It's hard to be watching a show and a really loud commercial comes on, it about blast you right out of your chair. Plus all the commercials they have in a row. Watch five minutes of a show and get TEN commercials! Mostly for cell phones, cars, insurance and colleges. I'm on the verge of getting rid of the TV.

Dennis Isaacs - January 11, 2012 6:44 PM

They transmit the show at a low volume so you have to turn your tv volume up. Then when the commercial comes on it is you that made it louder.

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