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CALM Act - CALM Promises Less Noise

Mon, 01/31/2011 - 7:50pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

And more business volume.

There was a storm of activity in Congress at the end of last year to tone down commercial loudness, but now calm prevails – or CALM does, at least. The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act was passed and signed into law at the end of the 2010 legislative session.

There’s no shortage of players entering the CALM Act game. From hardware and software manufacturers to content and service providers, the gaggle of entrants are vying for a place at the table to find solutions to cost-efficiently balance commercial and content volumes and determine just who’s responsible for what is growing.

“Commercial loudness probably must be dealt with at the headend, and we’re not sure of the cost implications. We’re also wondering if the broadcasters and cable companies will pressure the advertisers to make the process easier, and what the advertisers will really do,” said Paul Erickson, senior analyst for IMS Research.

CALM Promises Less Noise...

There’s little wonder what service providers and their support community will do, however. They’ll intensify their search for technologies and strategies to comply with CALM by next year.

“We’re measuring every bit of content with equipment that can determine the volume difference with automatic adjustments to a standardized level. Now, every piece of short-form and promotional content is measured the same,” explained Jim Starzynski, director of advanced engineering for NBC Universal and principal engineer for the Advanced TV Systems Committee (ATSC).

The ATSC, he maintains, has been a game-changer. “The difficulty was the voluminous amount of short-form content like commercials and promotions across many different operations, so we approached it as local promos and commercials and changed the ATSC standard to minus 24 to balance volume control.”

One nagging issue in the commercial loudness space has been the lack of uniformity across audio content, particularly with ad insertions.

Dolby created its metadata parameter with dialnorm that tells the decoder in set-top boxes or satellite receivers what the audio level is and then adjusts it. But according to Gary Traver, principal at Cloudburst Media and former COO at Comcast Media Center, it’s not exactly foolproof.

“A large segment of the technology universe doesn’t know what dialogue normalization levels are, and if they aren’t level, there’s a huge disruption to how audio is portrayed to consumers. So, dialogue levels need to be within two decibels of each other,” Traver said.

Some, he added, aren’t even close. “We talked to a variety of networks and found some were aware and very focused on continuity of levels, while others weren’t. Some intentionally set higher variances.”

Getting normalization levels in sync isn’t the only challenge, Traver pointed out. “There’s enough technical capability to solve the problem, so networks must pressure content suppliers to produce programming at a more consistent dialnorm rate. That will help manage the network. But it will also make life more difficult with CALM if the changes aren’t made. That’s where manufacturers should be able to help.”

Life with CALM could be getting easier, thanks to the increasing number of companies that have heard the loud and clear message to tone down the wild volume fluctuations in commercials. Dolby, Ensemble Designs, IneoQuest, Miranda Technologies, Tektronix and others are deepening their involvement in the loudness game.

“Much of the confusion is around the improper settings of the dialnorm volume. Consumers will adjust volume and switch channels. Then they associate volume levels with different channels,” said Francois Gourvil, senior product manager at Miranda.

MSOs, with hundreds of channels, VOD programming and ad insertions, are particularly exposed to CALM and its effects.

“It’s a lot more dynamic for MSOs, so audio issues have increased, along with costs and the scaling issue of processing every video program. It’s a tough mandate for MSOs,” Gourvil added.

Nonetheless, manufacturers and technologists are working on the answers. An example is IneoQuest and its Digital Video Analyzer.

“It will monitor hundreds of programs in the digital domain and decode on MPEG to allow us to evaluate audio loudness levels, and then calculate and store the performance data and hundreds of metrics. Now, we don’t need high-performance processors. It’s about adding algorithms and measurements to create a threshold for audio loudness, which is just another component to QoS and QoE,” said Kirk George, senior marketing manager for IneoQuest.

And it’s not just about commercials, either, but the full range of audio.

“It’s more about the multichannel environment. Audio is a critical part of the consumer experience. We don’t want to use a heavy hand to squash the audio and make it flat. That’s not a good customer experience,” said Craig Cuttner, senior vice president of advanced technology for HBO and chairman of the SCTE’s DVS Working Group 1 on audio.

The software component to CALM compliance is likely to be a factor, as well, according to Mondae Hott, director of sales for Ensemble Designs, whose Automatic Gain Control allows customers to create higher and lower levels without using compression technology.

“Service providers can pick a sound level and make changes based on parameters their customers set. New software will choose the levels automatically. We wanted to allow creative license for louder volume,” Hott said.

Record-keeping is also lurking in the shadows as a potential problem. Added Hott: “You must keep records for a long time and go to the database to prove that the TV station or cable system complied. We have to come up with a storage device and access data at a specific time. The challenge will be to manage those files.”

Getting CALM-compliant will not only require smart software, hardware and engineering, but also some elevated skill sets and, probably most pressing, determining just who’s responsible for what.

“There needs to be broad education across industries about guidelines for dialnorm and encoders. Monitoring and measuring the plant is good practice, but if that’s all that happens, it won’t solve the problem,” Traver said.

The answer may have come from an unlikely source: Congress.

Concluded Starzynski: “Hats off to Congress for getting people moving in the same direction. The biggest impediment has been the lack of awareness.”

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