Cable operators, TV stations and satellite- and telco-TV providers nearly all share a to-do item: by Dec. 13, they must be compliant with new federal rules designed to make sure commercials aren’t excessively louder than other programming.
That task stems from the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act, enacted into law in December 2010 and interpreted by the Federal Communications Commission.
Multichannel-video providers have known this was coming. Mike Paxton, a senior analyst at MultiMedia Research Group, said his “sense is that all the major pay TV operators in the country are taking the CALM Act seriously and will be ready by the deadline.”
Compliance means having the technology to keep tabs on volume and possibly to proactively manage it in real time; to respond to FCC queries by producing volume logs for the events in question; and/or to conduct around the clock “spot check” monitoring.
Eliminating “over-CALM” commercials or showing a good-faith effort at doing so will help operators to avoid potential FCC fines — and possible complaints, whether accurate or not, from consumers who may be paying closer attention to the ads based on publicity about the law.
A check with several cable operators backed the analysis that said they would be ready on time.
Cox Communications is “committed to the CALM Act requirements and ensuring our customers’ viewing experience is the best it can be,” media relations director Todd Smith said. Atlanta-based Cox is on track to be compliant by the Dec. 13 deadline, he said.
“We are actively working with programmers, advertisers and equipment providers to ensure that commercials that run on our channel lineup are compliant with the new regulations,” Smith said. “As part of that work, we are proactively monitoring the volume of the advertisements that we receive from programmers to make sure the volume level is in the acceptable range in accordance with the CALM Act.”
Similarly, at Suddenlink Communications, the word is “our preparations for compliance with the CALM Act are proceeding on schedule and we do not currently anticipate any issues,” according to Pete Abel, senior vice president of corporate communications.
Mike Ott, headend technician at Massillon Cable in Northeast Ohio, said, “I think we are 100% ready and compliant.”
Some companies are running a bit late, though, according to at least one company whose business is to help ensure CALM compliance. “It should have been all done by this past summer, but as of mid-October, many hadn’t yet,” Andrew Sachs, vice president of product management at Volicon, said. Burlington, Mass.-based Volicon is among the vendors offering multichannel video (including audio) monitoring and logging systems.
Tools to implement CALM compliance capabilities are widely available, vendors said. Typically, they are free or modestly priced upgrades to existing video monitoring products that providers are likely already using to monitor picture quality, closed-captioning and other matters (along with being able to prove to advertisers that their spots were run as scheduled).
Vendors with “CALMing” products or add-ons include Elemental Technologies, IneoQuest Technologies, Linear Acoustic, Qualis Audio, SpotGenie, Tektronix, Telestream and Triveni Digital, as well as Volicon.
“Upgrading to handle CALM compliance isn’t a major expense,” Ed Vogt, president of EAR Professional Audio Video, said. “For a typical cable headend with 200 channels, it will cost less than $1,000 per channel — possibly much less.
“And you only need to apply CALM processing to problematic channels,” Vogt added. “If it’s a trusted source, you won’t need it.”
For instance, Massillon Cable carries about 250 channels, according to president Bob Gessner, “but we insert advertising on only about 45 of those.”
The price to add CALM compliance will, of course, vary, based on factors including the number of channels being monitored, the type of data that is stored and the existing video and audio monitoring tools are already in place.
One vendor estimated that adding its CALM compliance features would cost a system about $1,000 or so; another vendor estimated that it might add about 10% to the overall price of their Advanced Television Systems Committee compliance product.
But how big is the commercial loudness issue that CALM is intended to address?
Various sources estimated that CALM-violating commercial incidents range anywhere from a few per day per network, to a few per week or less — and fewer than in the past, as more content producers bring their “dial norm” volume settings in line.
But part of CALM compliance means keeping a watchful eye — or ear — on ad content before the files go to the broadcasters. Spot distribution company SpotGenie estimates that up to 30% of the ads they deal with violate CALM Act limits; fixing this, e.g., correcting “dial norm” settings, before files are sent out helps avoid “un-CALM” events.
But from a customer-retention viewpoint, CALM compliance isn’t the only reason for multichannel providers to want to watch their audio levels. Volume levels on adjacent channels could easily vary enough to jolt a startled viewer into reaching for their remote control.
Multichannel video providers are on track for complying with the CALM Act, which requires pay TV operators to regulate commercial volume.
Key Considerations In Keeping ‘CALM’
Congress’s Dec. 15, 2010, Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act gives the Federal Communications Commission authority relating to “excessive commercial loudness.”
On Dec. 13, 2011 the FCC adopted a report and order implementing the CALM Act, with rules taking effect Dec. 13, 2012.
The CALM act applies only to commercials and promotional messages but not to regular programming. (The FCC did not act on a cable-industry request that promos be excluded.)
Volume levels on commercials must be kept within specified limits — in practical terms, voices in commercials being similar in volume to that of the programs, rather than being (annoyingly) louder, to the point where many listeners would instinctively reach for the volume control.
Operators and stations 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 Advanced Television Systems Committee standard that the FCC is making mandatory.
The FCC can request a 24-hour “spot check” to demonstrate that commercials are within CALM limits.
— Daniel P. Dern and John Eggerton