Technology

Noise Picks Up on Hushing Loud Ads

11/14/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Turn that darn thing down!

For the pay TV industry, eliminating irritatingly loud
commercials is about to become a regulatory requirement.

The Federal Communications Commission is currently
drafting rules enforcing the U.S.’s Commercial
Advertising Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, which
mandates that ads be no louder than the programs they
surround.

The agency is required to issue its CALM Act guidelines
by Dec. 15, including what fines (if any) will be levied on
violators. After that, cable, satellite and telco TV operators
will have a year to get their houses in order.

Even before the FCC’s order comes out, vendors of
video equipment and monitoring solutions are clamoring
for business from operators and cable networks.

FIXING OR RED-FLAGGING

The products designed for CALM compliance are split into
two categories: those that normalize audio levels automatically
in a video stream, and those that only analyze relative
volume levels to send up a red flag over anything that’s
too loud.

Jarringly loud commercials have always been an issue
for cable operators — but now there’s the threat of FCC
penalties, Tektronix vice president of video network monitoring
Steve Liu said.

“This is nothing new. Customers don’t want to constantly
have to adjust the volume when a commercial comes
on,” he said. “The difference now is the CALM Act brings
out the urgency of this matter.”

Tektronix this month launched Sentry Assure, a lowercost
version of its Sentry monitoring platform specifically
designed for CALM compliance. The one-rack-unit-high
Sentry Assure device simultaneously listens to hundreds
of channels with loudness-detection capabilities and postsplice
ad-insertion monitoring, which identifies when local
ads are not inserted correctly.

While the FCC’s rules are directed toward multichannel
video-programming distributors, programming networks
will also need to work proactively to make sure the audio
levels in their national feeds comply with the CALM provisions
— and respond to viewer complaints.

Cable operators are already in
discussions with programmers
and broadcasters about ways
to resolve audio-leveling problems
as close to the point of origin
as possible, according to Stan
Brovont, Arris’s senior vice president
of marketing and business
development.

“The solution and compliance
to the order will not unilaterally
be a cable-operator endeavor,”
Brovont said.

The CALM Act directs the FCC
to regulate commercial volume
in accordance with the Advanced
Television Systems Committee’s
A/85 recommended practices.
But those guidelines, which the
ATSC updated in July 2011, are
not a technical specifi cation per
se. Rather, they are a set of recommendations
for how to control
program-to-interstitial loudness.

“If you look at A/85, it doesn’t
give you just one single thing to follow,” Arris vice president
of engineering for digital video systems Santhana
Chari said. “It’s more of a giant community effort to solve
the problem.”

Meanwhile, cable is continuing its lobbying efforts. The
National Cable & Telecommunications Association has argued
that the massive scale of operators’ locally inserted
ads makes an ongoing monitoring requirement infeasible.

“[O]ne large MSO inserts more than 4 million commercials
every day,” the NCTA said in comments to the FCC.
“Given the number of channels and volume of commercials,
it would be impossible for cable operators to actively
monitor all of those channels.”

The American Cable Association is seeking to alleviate
the burden of CALM Act compliance on smaller cable
operators. Among other things, it wants loudness complaints
in national network feeds directed to the largest
pay TV provider that carries the network. The ACA also
wants “safe harbor” provisions that would exempt operators
from penalties if they or their partners have deployed
equipment in accordance with ATSC A/85 guidelines.

MIX OF RESPONSES

For now, most pay TV operators, as they await the FCC’s
final rules, are taking a wait-and-see stance about their
plans with respect to complying with the CALM Act.

Some providers, though, are implementing volume-leveling
features.

Dish Network is using SRS Labs’ TruVolume in certain
models of its digital video recorder receivers. The TruVolume
algorithm monitors 20 different frequency bands, adjusting
audio in real time to smooth out bursts of loud volume in the
middle range (in which loudness is most noticeable).

“You will see some operators trying to understand what
this means for them and what they need to do,” Tektronix’s
Liu said. “Other operators are more aggressive and are being
more proactive.”

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