FCC Releases New Loudness Rules

The new CALM Act regulations governing television loudness become mandatory on all commercial advertising transmitted by TV broadcasters and MVPDs as of Dec. 31, 2012. They require adherence to the ATSC A/85 recommended practices and establish a “safe harbor” for commercials passed through by stations.

The FCC voted unanimously today to adopt new rules for the CALM Act—the legislation passed by Congress last year to govern the loudness of broadcast and pay television content. The rules go into effect on Dec. 13, 2012.

The CALM Act (for Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act) regulates the audio of TV commercials from being broadcast at louder sound volumes than the TV program material they accompany. Viewers have complained to the FCC and other government agencies about loud commercials for decades, which prompted the new law.

The legislation directed the FCC to establish regulations requiring TV stations, cable operators, satellite TV providers or other multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) to follow the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s (ATSC) A/85 Recommended Practice (ATSC A/85 RP) to transmit commercial advertisements. The ATSC A/85 RP is a set of methods to measure and control the audio loudness of commercials and programming in the digital domain.

Today, the FCC finished the task of converting what was a 76-page recommended practice into a set of enforceable rules. Lyle Elder, in the FCC Media Bureau’s policy division, presented the rules to the commissioners in an open meeting, saying the rules now makes the practice mandatory on all commercial advertising transmitted by TV broadcasters and MVPDs.

“The order requires that all stations and MVPDs comply with both the local commercials they insert and with the embedded commercials they pass through as part of programming supplied by a network or programmer,” Elder told the commissioners.

Under the order, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau will notify stations and MVPDs of potential non-compliance if it receives “a pattern or trend” of consumer complaints, Elder said.


“Since retroactively demonstrating compliance may be difficult, the order provides two methods by which entities may equally demonstrate ongoing compliance. With respect to locally inserted commercials, stations and MVPDs must demonstrate that they installed, utilized and maintained the equipment and software [to monitor loudness] in a commercially reasonable manner will be deemed in compliance with the rules,” Elder said.

“With respect to embedded commercials, the order provides an alternative safe harbor approach. It involves a combination of certification by programmers and spot checks by distributors. All stations and MVPDs will be in the safe harbor for commercials embedded in programming if the program provider has certified that its programming complies with the practice, and the station or MVPD has no reason to believe that certification is incorrect and the station or MVP certifies the compliance of its own equipment to transmit the program to consumers,” Elder said.

“To promote a level playing field, a certifying programmer must make his certification available to all distributors,” he continued. “To be in the safe harbor with regard to commercials and non-certified programming, larger stations and MVPDs must perform annual 24-hour spot checks of channels carrying non-certified programming.”

Large broadcasters with more than $14 million in annual receipts and the top four MVPDs, with 10 million or more subscribers, must spot check 100% of non-certified programming. MVPDs with fewer than 10 million but more than 400,000 subscribers, must spot check 50% of non-certified programming.

“This will increase the likelihood that at least one entity is spot checking all commercial programming including regional or other programming not carried by one of the top four MVPDs,” Elder said. “This approach will also ensure that national programming is spot checked on multiple days over the course of a year.”

Once a larger station or MVPD has provided two years of spot checks on its non-certified programming and found no evidence of non-compliance, it may stop making annual spot checks and remain in the safe harbor. Smaller stations and MVPDs are excused from annual spot checks.

“If alerted to a pattern or trend of consumer complaints, a station or MVPD must perform a 24-hour spot check of the channel at issue. This requirement applies to all stations and MVPDs regardless of size and applies to both certified and non-certified programming. However, if complaints implicate both large and small stations or MVPDs, the bureau would generally focus enforcement inquires on the larger entities.”

Spots checks, whether annual or in response to a pattern or trend of complaints, would require further action only if they indicate non-compliance by a programmer. In that case, the station or MVPD must notify the commission and programmer within seven days and conduct a follow-up process with 30 days.

“If that follow-up spot check reveals non-compliance, the station or MVPD will not be in the safe harbor for that programming and would be liable for future violations,” Elder said.

In response to the FCC’s action, NAB EVP of Communications Dennis Wharton said: “We think the FCC struck the right balance in implementing the CALM Act and look forward to working with them going forward.”

And Matthew M. Polka, president of the American Cable Association, said his organization “appreciates the FCC’s time and attention throughout the rulemaking process in seeking to understand and mitigate the potential burdens that this legislation could impose on smaller operators.”

The FCC’s order and accompanying statements can be found here.

Comments (10)

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Ellen Samrock says:

December 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Yet another layer of bureaucratic regulation, yet another fine-based revenue source.

    len Kubas says:

    December 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    funny comment. For more than 50 years, loudness of commercials versus program content has been the biggest complaint to the FCC. Now that we can measure and fix it, isn’t it a good idea to do so?

    Ellen Samrock says:

    December 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Monitoring and regulating loudness levels in a network’s or station’s content is a good thing. Legislating it is a bad thing and apparently unnecessary since all of the major networks have reported that they are already in compliance. Only a masochist would prefer bureaucratic regulation (with all of the attendant paperwork that goes with it) over voluntary compliance.

Steve Graziano says:

December 13, 2011 at 1:16 pm

There are 2 problems with audio levels: 1. network & syndicated programming is usually uncompressed, or compressed very little. This allows for a lot of dynamic range which means there can be very soft levels. If you go from a soft emotional passage in a show to a commercial break, the commercials, which are usually compressed, will appear louder. The solution is for TV stations to have more limiting and compression on their audio chains which will balance out overall levels. This will however reduce dynamic range which would detrimentally effect a program with some soft audio pasaages (especially music). The second problem is that TV stations generally don’t pay much attention to their audio chains and thus allow wide swings in levels. Faster attack and release times in compressor / limiter processors will help the problem. But if its too fast you’ll hear the audio pumping which is not good. If stations had done a better job of monitoring their audio in the past, this step by the FCC wouldn’t have been necessary.

    len Kubas says:

    December 13, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    You’d really benefit by reading A/85. Some of what you say is ortogonal to maintaining audio levels (loudness is loudness in compressed or uncompressed domains). Some of what you say ONLY has to do with analog, and CALM is about digital. Period. No additional compression is needed to accomplish this: only administering the dialnorm variable in your AC-3 encoder. Also, there is no reason why compressed commercials would appear louder than uncompressed commercials. Limiting and compression are analog terms. The dynamic range permitted in ATSC is something like 96dB; you just have to administer the dialnorm value. Faster attack and release times have NOTHING to do with digital audio compression, since those are limited by AC-3 encoders. Broadcasters should have dealt with this over the last 50 years. They did not; ATSC A/85 has been around for almost a decade; now it’s embedded in regulations, and at least new monitoring equipment will have to be purchased by most stations.

Tanya Pavluchuk says:

December 13, 2011 at 3:31 pm

A/85 still can’t help Grandma from cranking the volume when two people are whispering to each other just before the commercial break.

Julie Kirchem says:

December 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm

As a commercial TV director for over 40 years in Hollywood, this argument over commercial loudness really bothers me. As the grandfather of “Infomercials” I’ve asked announcers to “project their voices,” to command attention. It’s similar to a barker in a carnival side-show, or maybe a better example is an excited game show announcer. That doesn’t mean that the level being recorded and measured by the VU meter is any louder than is allowed. In other words, it just “sounds” louder because the announcers are projecting! Does this mean that we must ask all commercial announcers to speak in subdued tones from now on? Compression or “limiters” as I used to know them, keep the volume level at a required state. So what else can be done rather than what I just said? I find it very confusing and can’t see the industry changing the way announcers and/or performers project!

Scott McDaniel says:

December 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm

To David Dunn: As a producer, director and a voice talent, I will say that you need make NO changes at the creative-production end. We’re always going to put enhancement and other audio finals on our mixes. But the final end point stage is where they can keep everything ear level constant…and they’re doing a poor job of it. Going from channel to channel, the difference can be many decibels apart. Gee, if a good audio device can’t do the job, they just might have to hire a human being to monitor output…oh, parden me, that’s not allowed in today’s corporate world where EVERY function is automated…and they wonder why everything airs with mis-matched levels with the top and bottom of selections getting upcut and down cut…alright I’ll get off my Soap Box. (But it is amazing how few mistakes were made when an actual human being was monitoring and adjusting levels along with rolling and putting items on-air). So, perhaps this legislation-rule, whatever, will make a difference…but why a year to have it in force, oh, that’s right, the corporations want to drag out the potential outlay of some of their prescious profits until the very last minute while they can bomb our ears another twelve months…
Peter Bright

Julie Kirchem says:

December 13, 2011 at 4:21 pm

You made a good point, Peter Bright! We know everything is based on greed these days. David Dunn

Mark Reed says:

December 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

I simply don’t have an issue with loud commecials at all…as I always hit MUTE as a routine since most of the commercials these days are so annoying…especially the UPS “Logistics” with the mousy voice girl singing.