CALM Act: Your Tax Dollars at Work

If you watch television programming that has commercials, I’m sure you’ve experienced it more than once. Your program winds down to a sensitive, thoughtful stopping point, and then there’s a commercial break. And the very first commercial BLOWS YOUR EARS OUT!!! You lunge for the remote and mash the Mute button, wondering “why doesn’t someone do something about this?”

Well, you can now rest easy because your government has heard your pain and done something about them. Last December, in an uncharacteristic fit of bi-partisan cooperation, Congress passed the “Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation Act” and President Obama signed it into law. Known better by its initials, the CALM Act gives the FCC one year to come up with a solution to commercials that are too much louder than the programming that surrounds them. And what is the solution? To follow the “A/85 Recommended Practice” of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC).

Huh? The FCC is now charged with enforcing a standard that was published in November 2009. It is designed to set a “uniform loudness” which results in a “comfortable volume between disparate TV programs, commercials, and channel changing transitions.” If this is based on an ATSC “best practice”, then why haven’t the major networks already adopted them? (NBC Universal and FOX apparently were demonstrating compliant systems at the NAB conference this spring.)

The fact remains that advertisers are going to want their ads to be louder than anything else around it. And they’re not going to want the ad to play more quietly during a break on “Grey’s Anatomy” than after a timeout on “Monday Night Football”. The ATSC approach does help normalize levels some, but I’ve got no doubt that there’s plenty of room to “game the system“. Given the dynamic range of television and movie soundtrack content, I expect that there will always be room to make commercials louder than some people would like. And note that the CALM Act only applies to those “stations” that the FCC can control. Online streaming services such as Hulu aren’t bound by FCC rules, so don’t expect them to solve the problem soon.