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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Federal law limiting loudness of TV commercials goes into effect Thursday

When you turn on your TV on Thursday, you may notice something pleasantly different.

Or, rather, not notice something that was once annoyingly regular. ...

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When you turn on your TV on Thursday, you may notice something pleasantly different.

Or, rather, not notice something that was once annoyingly regular.

As of Dec. 13, commercials aren’t supposed to be louder than the programs that surround them thanks to a federal law known as the CALM Act.

“Will viewers notice a difference? Some will and some won’t, depending on what kind of programming they watch,” WMUR-TV general manager Jeff Bartlett said.

“If you’re watching a quiet romantic movie, then going to a marching band promoting a college football game – that’s going to be hard.”

Bartlett noted that many digital televisions have equipment that helps stabilize audio levels.

WMUR has signed on to the law, as have all the state’s cable TV companies and all of the broadcast stations that reach Greater Nashua, with the exception of Derry-based WBIN.

WBIN has taken a one-year “small broadcast station” exemption, offered to give stations more time to pay for and incorporate technical changes, including equipment for monitoring the volume of national spots and local ads. About 50 stations and small networks around the country have taken that exemption.

“It gives us more time to buy the equipment, get it installed properly, get it ready to go,” said Gerry McGavick, general manager of WBIN.

McGavick said the situation is complicated because some commercials are made by major advertising agencies, some by WBIN’s production facilities and some by the advertisers themselves, which can produce varying degrees of audio quality that can lead to problems.

“The new equipment enables us to fix problems at that moment,” said McGavick, who said it would cost “in five figures.”

As for the act, he said, “I understand why they did it. I think it’s in the best interest of the viewers.”

At WMUR, Barlett said the station is using about $9,000 worth of existing equipment at the moment and will upgrade to “a new generation of logging-monitoring equipment” next year, which would cost “in the $60,000 range.”

The CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act was approved a year ago by the Federal Communications Commission after Congress passed a law requiring it to do so.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said at the time: “I cannot tell you how many hundreds of citizens have told me – personally, through emails and letters, at public hearings, even across the family dinner table – how obnoxiously intrusive they find loud commercials.”

Despite that unanimity, the issue of commercial volume is more complicated than it seems.

Gary Reynolds, a producer at WMUR, acknowledged that volume is sometimes an issue with commercials.

“There are some times I’ve had to turn down commercials sent to me because the audio has been too high, or too low,” he said.

As often as not, he said, the problem is that the audio created by producers is too low to meet standards, frequently because of problems converting from analog to digital files.

Industry analysts have long said that despite how it may sound, the peak volume of commercials – the loudest noise they make – isn’t louder than the peak volume of programming.

Because commercials are intended to hold a viewer’s attention, a lot more peak volume is used in them. Thus, even if they don’t shout louder than the programming, they shout more often.

So the average volume of commercials is higher, which viewers tend to perceive as a higher peak volume.

David Mackey, creative services director for Edify Multimedia Group in Nashua, which makes commercials among its video services, hasn’t received any instructions about how to do his work differently.

“Very specific instructions come to me and other creators of TV spots: HQ64, compressed at this rate, it has to be this, this, this and this,” Mackey said. “We have not heard about (the act); we haven’t been instructed to follow any new guidelines or specifications.”

That’s because final volume is largely dependent on what the stations or networks do, Mackey said.

The CALM Act specifically targets “average volume,” meaning it’s enough to just put a cap on loudness or to limit the dynamic range. This is part of the reason that the monitoring equipment costs so much.

“Our advertising arm, Comcast Spotlight, has worked diligently over the past few years to ensure that all of the advertisements that are inserted into Comcast programming are compliant with industry standards,” said Marc Goodman, New Hampshire spokesman for Comcast. “Comcast also has been coordinating with our programming partners for well over a year on the technical and operational methods to assure compliance with all other advertisements.”

For more information, visit the FCC website at www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/loud-commercials.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).