FCC Investigating PatternOf CALM Act Complaints

Viewers have lodged almost 20,000 complaints about loud commercials since
the FCC began implementing the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act last December. The number
has been decreasing of late, which
was cause for some celebration on Capitol
Hill, but the commission may have
found a problematic issue.

As the FCC recently informed Congress,
commission officials are still
reviewing more than half of those
complaints, having found at least one
potential pattern to them—a pattern being
the threshold for FCC action, including possible
fines—while opening up an investigation into a possible
bad actor, which the agency has not identified.

The CALM Act is the law that puts the responsibility
for making sure that commercials are not appreciably
louder—not that anyone appreciates it—than
the programming that surrounds them exclusively in
the hands of broadcasters and cable operators.

The FCC made cable operators responsible for the
volume of both national and local ads as well as promos,
while stations are responsible for the national
network and syndicated ads, as well as promos and
local ads both on broadcast and on the signals they
deliver to cable operators. So if an operator
delivers a TV station ad that violates
the act, the broadcaster is responsible.

But even though the FCC report outlined
those concerns, it was generally
upbeat about the state of commercial
loudness, a good mood that carried over
to the congressional authors of the bill.

The Shouts Have Quieted

Complaints about loud commercials have quieted
since the FCC started implementing the CALM Act,
which prompted the coauthors of the legislation to
mark the improvement. The FCC’s quarterly report
on the law found that complaints were down 53%
from the previous reporting period, to 3,501.

“I’m very pleased that the loudness standards set
in place by the CALM Act are working,” said Anna
Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Communications
Subcommittee and the bill’s coauthor.

“Loud commercials have long been an unnecessary
annoyance in the daily lives of Americans and
have consistently ranked among the top consumer
complaints to the FCC,” added Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse
(D-R.I.). “I was glad to work with Rep. Eshoo
to pass a law to address this problem, and I’m
pleased to see that the number of FCC complaints
has steadily declined since the law took effect.”

It has only been a year since the FCC began implementing
the CALM Act, but it is already proposing to
make broadcasters and cable operators adopt a new
standard for monitoring commercials.

In a notice of proposed rulemaking released in the
waning hours of Mignon Clyburn’s acting chairmanship,
the FCC suggested what it said was a minor
rule change to the law, an improved loudness measurement
algorithm it said could lead to even quieter
commercials by closing an electronic loophole
of sorts. “The Act anticipated and made mandatory
any successor document so that the standard could
keep pace with changing technology, affording the
commission no discretion,” the FCC said.

The FCC earlier this month put the new successor
document out for public comment for 45 days, given
that it may require a hardware or software upgrade.
The algorithm appears to be designed to keep advertisers
from using silence to offset excessive loudness in
calculating the average volume of a commercial.

The FCC wants to hear from folks who have
bought equipment that will be hard to upgrade and
from smaller TV stations and multichannel video
programming distributors that may find it a hardship
and need more time.

In the meantime, stations and MVPDs can adhere
to the old standard, or the FCC will waive the old
standard if they want to move to the new standard
as soon as possible.

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel supported
the move but added that in her view, this is really
only step one.

“We build on what has come before by adopting a
rulemaking designed to make sure that as technology
evolves, our policies remain up-to-date,” she said.
But she pointed out that there have been almost
20,000 commercial loudness complaints.

“By any measure, that is a lot,” Rosenworcel
said. “Viewers are—quite literally—reaching out to
us and asking us to take action. That is why I support
the request made by Rep. Anna Eshoo and Sen.
Sheldon Whitehouse to issue quarterly reports that
identify patterns of CALM Act noncompliance. I believe
this will not only facilitate enforcement of our
rules—it could help us put this irritating, persistent
problem to rest.”

The FCC adopted rules implementing the act in
December 2011, but the industry did not have to
come into compliance for a year.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.