New law turns down volume on TV commercials
CEDAR RAPIDS, Dec 04, 2012 (Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Some Northeast Iowans may have noticed a change -- perhaps an improvement -- in their television viewing experience of late.
It's due to the CALM Act -- or Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation -- which Congress passed in December 2010. It requires commercials to be the same average volume as the programs they accompany. Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission a year to establish rules for compliance with the CALM Act.
Those rules, established in December 2011, go into effect Dec. 13. They mandate all TV stations, cable operators, satellite TV providers and other multichannel video program distributors to measure and control the loudness of digital programming, including commercials.
For most operators, new equipment is needed to meet the new standards, and some low-budget operations will be granted one-year waivers if they can show the cost of the equipment is a financial hardship.
That means it could still be another year until commercials on some stations come under congressional volume control.
But many stations and providers in Northeast Iowa already have come into compliance with the new rules in anticipation of the looming deadline.
"We began 12 months ago by putting it into our regular plan of upgrading our network," said Phyllis Peters, an Iowa-based spokeswoman for Mediacom. "We wanted to be done well ahead of the new law going into effect."
Mediacom completed the necessary changes at the end of August.
Under Mediacom's old system, advertisers could submit commercials that were louder than the standard programming. With its new modulators in place, the cable provider can adjust advertisement volume levels to match the TV shows they accompany.
"The equipment has improved so much, along with the way we monitor networks and the way we transmit our programming," Peters said. "This was coming anyway."
Falling into compliance
University of Iowa adjunct professor Nicholas Johnson agreed the change has been a long time coming. The professor of cyber and media law, who served on the FCC for seven years, said complaints about commercial volume have been common for decades.
"It was an issue when I was on the commission from 1966 to 1973," Johnson said. "People have always complained about loud commercials, and they still do. I still do."
Johnson said the issue has taken so long to resolve because developing standards for volume control is not easy. For example, he said, advertisers can skirt decibel regulations by having individuals shout during commercials instead of speak at a normal volume.
There also are some sounds that come across as more "piercing" than others, like train whistles or fireworks.
"Advertisers are not known for their ethical concerns and for the welfare of TV viewers," he said. "If they can figure out a way to increase the volume and charge more, they will do it."
Those efforts to avoid compliance have Johnson wary about what degree of success the new rules might have.
"Whether this will have any effect on anyone remains to be seen," Johnson said.
The FCC, according to a spokeswoman, is not keeping track of which stations and cable providers are in compliance with its new rules and which ones are not. The commission is regulating its new mandates based solely on complaints.
If it receives a complaint, the commission will investigate it at that time.
"I would hope that the major broadcasters would comply," Johnson said. "This is something people should be listening for. If they continue to hear disparities in volume, they ought to contact the FCC."
KWWL-TV in Waterloo already has installed the necessary audio processing equipment, said chief engineer Dan Whealy. "It went live a little over a month and a half ago. We just really tuned it last week ... to get it ready and compliant for the 13th."
That includes the NBC affiliate KWWL 7.1, This TV 7.2 and MeTV 7.3, which are all operated by the station. Whealy noted various equipment was necessary to ensure that all three could run through the audio processor. In addition, over-the-air viewers of KWWL 7.1 who have Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound at home will now receive that technology's full effect due to the upgrades.
Kevin Schrader, director of broadcast distribution for KCRG-TV9, said his network's 9.1 and 9.2 channels have been moderating the volume of commercials since late 2009. KCRG's 9.3 channel will be compliant by the December deadline, Schrader said.
"That was proactive voluntary compliance on our part," Schrader said. "We wanted to make sure that we set the levels so that all the levels were equal."
Both stations acknowledge the expense of making the upgrades.
"There was definitely a pretty decent cost involved," said Whealy. But he said the expense was incurred because "we're a company that wants to give viewers the best possible experience."
Schrader said the expense was not outrageous, and he views it as "the cost of doing business."
What's the impact
The new volume controls throw up another hurdle for advertisers who already are fighting harder to capture viewers' attention in a rapidly changing television landscape, UI professor Johnson said.
Digital video recorders make it possible for viewers to pause their program and skip over advertisements, and Internet streaming can eliminate commercials altogether.
"It is just one more thing," Johnson said, conceding that viewers have been employing techniques to avoid commercials forever -- like simply changing the channel.
But, Johnson said, even if viewers today stay tuned in during the commercials -- the volume-moderated ads might be less effective, as some advertisers fear.
"It's like negative campaign ads: Everyone says they're awful, but they also work," Johnson said. "Negative advertising works, and offensive and loud advertising works, too."
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