FCC Updates CALM Act To Further Quiet Commercials

The FCC has approved a technical change in the CALM Act that it says could further reduce the volume of TV commercials. It has given stakeholders a year to comply with the new standard, as the National Association of Broadcasters had requested.

The Act requires broadcasters and MVPDs to monitor and control the volume of commercials to make sure they are not louder than the surrounding programming.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released last November, the FCC under then-chairman Mignon Clyburn, proposed what it said was a minor rule change to the Act, 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 said it probably didn't have to seek public comment on the change but was doing so to get input on the timeline and cost of the change 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. It employs "gating" that "will exclude very quiet or silent passages of a commercial when calculating the average loudness of that commercial."

The new standard was the product of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an industry standard-setting body, so the industry was not opposed to the change.

The commission this week made that change official and gave stakeholders until June 4, 2015, to make the change, though they are free to adopt the standard early if they choose. It suggested the change would not result in a big change in volume. "[C]onsumers may notice a modest decrease in the perceived loudness of certain commercials," the commission said.

The FCC denied a request by Holston Valley to extend its financial hardship waivers until a year after that June 2015 date.

The FCC received more than 20,000 complaints about loud commercials in the year since the FCC began enforcing the CALM Act in December 2012, but the good news was that the complaints have been on a steep downward curve, from 4,777 in December 2012 to 656.

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

The FCC made cable operators responsible for the volume of both national and local ads, as well as promos, while TV 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. That means if a cable operator delivers a TV station ad that violates the act, it is the broadcaster who is responsible.

But the final order included some flexibility for operators and stations to comply with their responsibility over the "imbedded" ads they pass along from program distributors up the chain. They will be considered in compliance if they "install, utilize and maintain" the requisite equipment and software, or they have a certification from the distributor of the ad that it complies with the recommended ATSC standard that the FCC is making mandatory.

Larger operators must conduct annual spot-checking of commercials for the first two years, after which that requirement sunsets. Smaller operators and stations don't have to spot check, but stations and operators of all sizes must test in response to a "pattern or trend" of complaints — rather than, say, a single complaint — involving their station or system.

Smaller operators have the opportunity to seek hardship waivers and are not be required to purchase equipment, though they are responsible for any proven violations.

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.