FCC’s CALM Rules Puts Ball In Viewers’ Court

The new FCC rules aimed at quieting loud commercials and promos take a light approach to compliance and enforcement, industry experts say. For finding trouble, the FCC will rely of complaints from viewers and will take action only if it finds "a pattern or trend." The rules don't require broadcasters to continuously monitor syndicated and network programming for compliance. However, "large" broadcasters will have to perform annual spot checks of imported programming if it hasn't been certified to be in compliance.

At first glance, the FCC rules implementing the CALM Act and regulating the loudness of commercials looks like the agency has placed another heavy regulatory burden on TV stations. But industry experts say that the burden is actually surprisingly light.

The rules were adopted Tuesday at an open FCC meeting. When they go into effect in a year (Dec. 13, 2012), stations will be required to keep the volume of commercials and promos in line with the industry-approved guidelines.

Stations will be not be obliged to continuously monitor programming for compliance and only “large” ones will have to conduct annual spot checks of syndicated and network programming that has not been certified as being in compliance.

The FCC has also kept the enforcement burden on itself light, shifting the job of identifying loudness miscreants to viewers.

“It does appear that the FCC has taken the position that reasonableness should prevail here,” said Richard Cabot, chief technical officer of Qualis Audio, a supplier of audio monitoring gear. “They have not written something that reeks of the letter of red. It seems that if you exercise a few steps, you are fairly well insulated.”

Skip Pizzi, who has been working the proceeding for the NAB, agreed. “I think both the technical and enforcement aspects are relatively acceptable to all parties.”


After decades of complaints from TV viewers about loud commercials, Congress a year ago passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, which instructs the FCC to come up with rules that would prevent commercials and promos from being louder than the surrounding programming.

Basically, the FCC’s rules require 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) in controlling the volume of commercials and promos.

To comply with the new rules in the handling of promos and local commercials, TV stations must install equipment that allows them “in the ordinary course of business” to check for loudness and make any necessary corrections to keep programming in line with the ATSC recommended practice.

However, the new rules do not require stations to continually monitor syndicated and network programming. Instead, for the most part, they may rely on certification of compliance from the outside sources.

Stations with more than $14 million in annual revenue must make 24-hour spot checks of all noncertified programming each year for two years. If the noncertified programming comes up clean for two years, the large stations may stop making the spot checks.

Smaller stations as well as small MVPDs are excused from making the spot checks.

The rules exemps noncommercial TV stations from the rules, “except to the extent they transmit commercial advertisements as part of an ‘ancillary or supplementary service.’ “

But at the same time it declined to exempt political advertising as some parties, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, had suggested.

The FCC says it will be not monitor or “audit” stations and networks to check for compliance. It will rely on viewers to complain about loudness and then act only if the complaints meet certain stiff criteria and it finds a “pattern or trend” of loudness complaints.

“We believe that a consumer-complaint-driven procedure, rather than an audit-driven one, is the most practical means to monitor industry compliance with our rules,” the FCC says in its 62-page order.

“In order for us to detect whether a pattern or trend of noncompliance exists and for stations and MVPDs to investigate them, it is essential that consumer complaints be specific in describing the commercials complained of, as well as identifying the station or MVPD and programming network on which the commercials appeared.

“As a general matter, nonspecific complaints will not be actionable.”

To be considered valid, the FCC rules says, complaints must contain the following information:

  • The complainant’s contact information, including name, mailing address, daytime phone number and e-mail address if available.
  • The name and call sign of the broadcast station or the name and type of the MVPD against whom the complaint is directed.
  • The date and time the loud commercial problem occurred.
  • The channel and/or network involved.
  • The name of the television program during which the commercial was viewed.
  • The name of the commercial’s advertiser/sponsor or product involved.
  • A description of the loudness problem.

The FCC will track the complaints looking for a “pattern or trend” and will act if it finds one.

“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,” FCC staffer Lyle Elder said at the FCC’s open meeting on Tuesday.

“However, if complaints implicate both large and small stations or MVPDs, the bureau would generally focus enforcement inquires on the larger entities.”

The rules do not lay out a schedule of fines for noncompliance. But David Oxenford, a Washington communications attorney, said that is fairly standard practice for the FCC. “They tend to come back later to deal with fines.”

Tim Carroll, president and founder of Linear Acoustic, a maker of loudness meters for broadcasters, said that the FCC to some extent has left the issue of what is too loud in the hands of the viewing public.

“What you don’t want to do is upset a viewer,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to. That’s the nature of compliance — not anything technical.”

“Are people going to try to trick the system? Sure,” he said. “But the way we measure loudness is so different than the way we measured things before. I think it’s unlikely that someone can trick a human operator. It might get through once. But the meter is going to tell you it’s wrong. A human being can’t be tricked. Louder is louder.”

Like others, Carroll praised the FCC for its balanced approach to the rulemaking and listening to including manufacturers and broadcasters. “They did a good job. I was impressed.”

“We all know there are certain channels we can turn to where they are not obeying the spirit of the rules,” Carroll added. “But now with the FCC rules there is some muscle for broadcasters to go back to providers of the commercials and say: ‘look we are legally required to get this right. We are now requiring you to deliver content measured with a loudness meter that hits a target.’ ”

In addition to Linear Acoustics and Qualis Audio, loudness gear is available from Ensemble Design, Harris, Dolby Labs, Nugen Audio, Tektronix, TC Electronic, Volicon, Dorrough and others.

Stan Moote, Harris vice president of business development, said most broadcasters have been gearing up for the CALM Act for over a year. “I think we will have continued sales, thanks to the multichannel explosion,” he said. “People are adding more and more channels every day. The speed of this act was very fast. Sometimes it can take years and years, but not this time.”

Oxenford warned broadcasters not to become too complacent with the viewer-based enforcement.

Some viewers may organized to enforce the rules, he said. “On the captioning side, with respect to emergency information, there are groups that have sprung up all around the country who monitor television stations every time there’s a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch. Sometimes they file hundreds of complaints.

“This CALM Act to a lot of us doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but Congress has gotten thousands and thousands of complaints, which is why they passed the law. It is one of those issues that more people have complained about to Congress and the FCC than anything else. I can see groups organizing to do this kind of monitoring.”

Cabot noted that the FCC rules allow the use of “compliant” compressors, also known as real-time processors, for loudness control.

“That’s interesting because there is no such thing as a ‘compliant’ compressor with any loudness standard,” he said. “They say if you use a real-time processor you’ll be deemed in compliance. I suspect they might come back and clarify that.

“The world is better off if people don’t use compressors because they mess up the audio quite substantially and hopefully these rules will make people feel less like they need to use one.”

Comments (10)

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Janet Frankston Lorin says:

December 15, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Like most government intrusion into our lives, here’s anothr solution in search of a problem. The end result with be additional problems created by this ruling, resulting in addition regulation.

    len Kubas says:

    December 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    The FCC has been getting large number of complaints about this problem since about 1955. To say it’s a non-problem is to not have paid attention for almost 60 years.

Jeff Groves says:

December 15, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Now if they could AMEND the “V-Chip” Law so that it INCLUDES COMMERCIALS. Parents must CRINGE whenever a Program their children are watching goes to a Commercial Break. Advertisers sho NO REGARD as to who is in front of the TV Set when their ads are played. there are times when you cannot go 15 minutes without seeing an ad for Sex Pills, Condoms, Contraceptives and Woman’s Hygene Products. ( I saw one of the latter during the MACY’s Parade this past Thanksgiving, I guess the Advertisers forgot that CHILDREN WERE WATCHING THE PARADE.) Even Children’s Shows aren’t safe from these kinds of ads. There may be a place for these kinds of commercials, but it is definately not at times when children are watching. If the Advertisers insist their Commercials be shown at all times of the day, Parents should be able to control what kinds of commercials the see as well as programs.

PS Since children under age 18 are prohibited from voting, all political ads should get the “TV-MA” Rating, so those can be blocked by parents as well.

    len Kubas says:

    December 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    It isn’t the V-Chip law that you have a problem with: it’s the ATSC PSIP standard, which puts a context on V-Chip ratings to an entire television program and probably cannot be changed. However, if you look into the ATSC M/H standard, you will see that there is no language that prevents from applying a V-Chip rating to even a single frame of video. I believe that you are seriously exagerrating the extent of these offensive commercials, and you missed the big one “four hour erections.”

Natasha T. Metzler says:

December 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm

The rules and procedures here actually appear to be pretty reasonable for compliance purposes, allowing most broadcasters to rely on certifications from programmers as to compliance with commercials embedded into the programming delivered by such programmers. The stations, in essence, mostly worry about their own insertions. My summary of the new rules is available here:

Susan Baurenfeind says:

December 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Check the list….to send complaint. The mute button works very well. And no watchdog individual reporting.
This is another reason the FCC needs to be restructured. What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen? What are you (the station, cable, etc.) going to do about it? What have you done to prevent it from happening again? Then…those who are not included in this ruling? Equal rights. Equal volume. (compression is one way the volume seems to be louder. Compression should be a standard limiting the “volume difference”.)

    Mark Reed says:

    December 19, 2011 at 10:53 am

    And my muting of commercials has nothing to do with their being loud.

Lindsay Bold says:

December 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm

I would like to add Orban’s name to the list of equipment vendors who make loudness controller products.

    jeff lee says:

    December 17, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    And I take it you have nothing to do with Orban?

jeff lee says:

December 17, 2011 at 8:21 pm

So much for taking care of poverty in this country. Glad we got the problem of loud commercials fixed though.