House Subcommittee OK's Commercial Loudness Bill

The House Communications Subcommittee has approved a bill that would require the broadcast and cable industries, which includes satellite and other multichannel video providers, to regularize the volume of advertisements and the programming surrounding them.

By a voice vote, the committee passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, backed by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and referred it to the full Energy & Commerce Committee.

Eshoo said the bill premise was simple: "To make the volume of commercials and programming uniform so that spikes in volume do not affect the consumer's ability to control sound." Eshoo said that ad volume spikes had "endangered hearing for decades." She also said legislative spouses had been urging their husbands or wives to sign on as co-sponsors. "I think they are all tired of getting blasted out of their easy chairs or off their exercise equipment due to these ridiculously loud commercials."

As reported by B&C, the bill was modified from the original form to give the broadcast and cable industry more time to implement the technology and to make an industry-backed engineering standard the rules for the road.

The bill gives the FCC a year to adopt a commercial volume standard being produced by the the Advanced Television Systems Committee, then gives the industry a year after that to purchase and install the necessary equipment. It also includes up to two, one-year waivers for financial hardship.  "Small stations and cable operators certainly should be able to comply within three years," Eshoo said, "plus the amount of time it takes for the FCC to complete and release the rules." But she said there would not be an "open ended" waiver process that drags on.

While broadcasters have up to a year, or more if they need waivers, Eshoo said her preference was "voluntary and immediate adoption of the standards by broadcasters, cable, satellite and all multichannel service providers."

The committee is expected to be ready to unveil the standard by next month, according to an industry source.  The industry was hoping to head off legislation with a voluntary standard. Eshoo commended the ATSC and the effort as one that should "end the practice of commercials outstripping the sound of programming"--sources say she was impressed by a demonstration of the technology a few weeks back--but she also said Thursday that Congress needed to legislate the standard.

"I wish that we could trust everyone to voluntarily comply," she said, "but the industry's track record has not been so great in this regard."

Eshoo said she would take into consideration what she called an 11th hour complaint from small cable operators that the standard would be a hardship on them, and Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said he would meet with small operators to discuss their concerns and desire for a carve-out from the bill.

Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), raised the issue of the impact of the bill on small cable operators. He said that while he was not disputing the need for uniform commercial volume, he said the bill, "perhaps unintentionally" was prejudiced [against] small operators.

He pointed out that many of those operators did not insert ads themselves or have "the right to alter national feeds unilaterally, like some of the bigger cable companies." He said that those operators "simply pass through broadcast signals and have no means of adjusting the volume of commercials on the stream."

He said the bill could impose burdens and hefty fines on the operators "for something over which they have very little control. At this stage, I'm wary of an 11th-hour amendment, and I want to study its potential effects before accepting it," Space said. "No one has raised this for over two years. We need to make sure we are not creating an unnecessary loophole."

She said she didn't see the problem. "Larger cable operators will contract with the various networks to use proper modulation for retransmission, then smaller operators will automatically receive properly modulated transmission from Weather Channel or Food Network, for instance."

She also said local TV stations will have to comply, and if they don't and seek a waiver, cable operators can also apply for a waiver. She said that those seeking an exemption for small cable operators seem to presume that broadcasters won't comply with the law. "I expect all broadcasters to comply with the law of seek a waiver. If they don't there are serious consequences."

That said, she said she would listen to those concerns before a full-committee markup.

At the same hearing, the subcommittee approved, also on voice votes, allowing more low-power FM stations by removing third-adjacent-channel interference protections for full-power broadcasters, and a bill to extend the funding and application process for states tapping into the 700 mhz auction money set aside for interoperable first responder communications.

“The advertising industry appreciates the spirit behind the CALM Act—after all nobody likes extra loud commercials—even advertisers," said Adonis Hoffman, senior VP and counsel of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "The industry has been following the lead of the Advanced Television Systems Committee and its “Recommended Practices for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television”. This should provide the kind of acceptable guidelines that can be widely adopted by all of the players in the commercial marketplace.

Advertisers and agencies back the ATSC standard, but like cable and broadcast indusry representatives, would prefer that the voluntary standards, not legislation, be the vehicle.

"ACA is pleased that some House member recognize that many small cable operators have no control over the loudness of commercials contained in local TV shows or national cable networks," said Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents small and mid-sized cable operators. "ACA is hopeful that Congress will consider an exemption for small cable companies that do not insert their own ads and will give small operators that perform ad insertions a reasonable amount of time to come into compliance."

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.