Loud burdens.

People have been complaining about loud commercials for years, but now with digital TV, it's finally possible to do something about it.

Jeffrey KraussCongress enacted the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act a year ago, and it required the FCC to adopt loudness rules within a year. The law requires the FCC to take a Recommended Practice created by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and make it mandatory. That Recommended Practice is known as A/85. The FCC’s rules contain some surprises.

It’s no surprise that the law imposes new burdens on cable operators and broadcasters. The whole purpose is to regulate the loudness of commercials, which was never regulated before. A/85 tells how to accomplish that: Measure the loudness of commercials, measure the loudness of the programming that the commercials are inserted into and set the value of a metadata element called “dialnorm” to properly reflect the loudness. If dialnorm is set correctly, then the Dolby decoders in TV sets and set-top boxes will make sure that the loudness of the commercials matches the loudness of the programming.

So while A/85 imposes burdens, and the law imposes burdens, the FCC decided to impose more burdens. Most notably, while the law covers commercial advertising, the FCC decided that it should cover promotional messages, too. Nevermind that the FCC in the past has distinguished between commercials and promos. Nevermind that Congress never talked about promos. Nevermind that A/85 doesn’t purport to cover promos. And nevermind that the FCC decided to exclude promos broadcast by noncommercial education TV stations.

FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, in his statement accompanying the FCC decision, said: “Promos are also not considered to be commercial advertisements under the statutory constraints governing noncommercial educational (NCE) stations. See 47 U.S.C. §399B (an advertisement has to be broadcast or otherwise transmitted in exchange for consideration). We have excluded NCE stations from the rules adopted in this proceeding because they may not broadcast advertisements – and yet they remain free to air promos. In short, it is not readily apparent, based on the language of the statute alone, that it covers promos.”

So while subscription programming channels like HBO thought they would be exempt from the law because they don’t carry commercials, they were caught by surprise when the FCC decision came out – because they do carry promos.

Another burden has to do with “embedded” commercials – that is, commercials that are inserted into the program by the upstream supplier. For cable, the upstream suppliers are cable programming networks such as USA and TNT. For broadcast stations, the upstream suppliers are networks like Fox. The FCC did not apply the CALM Act to upstream suppliers; it only applied it to cable and satellite operators and local broadcasters. But the FCC did permit the upstream suppliers to provide a “safe harbor” by certifying to their customers that they would follow the teachings of A/85.

That’s all well and good, but probably not every upstream supplier will agree to offer that certification. In that case, the FCC decided, cable operators and broadcasters must have a procedure for “spot checking” the loudness of commercials on the non-certified program networks. But how will that be done? The cable operators can, of course, measure the loudness of a channel that comes in to the headend. But there is no information provided by the upstream supplier to determine when the commercials and promos will appear and no way for the operator to determine at any instant whether it is measuring the loudness of a commercial, a promo or the programming.

How will cable operators comply with the spot checking requirement? I don’t know.

Next, there is the question of the measurement algorithm itself. A/85 requires use of the specific measurement method defined in a standard adopted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), known as Recommendation BS.1770. The ITU adopted BS.1770 in 2006 and modified it somewhat in 2007. The 2007 version was denoted as BS.1770-1, and that’s the version cited in A/85. But A/85 also says that the latest versions of the cited references should be used. The ITU modified BS.1770 again in 2011, so we now have the version BS.1770-2. And it contains a major change from BS.1770-1 in the way it handles periods of silence.

Initial indications are that the two different versions of BS.1770 give very different values of loudness. No problem if the commercials and the programming are measured using the same version of the measurement method, but mixing the two different measurement algorithms could lead to loudness mismatches. Since the change in BS.1770 was championed at the ITU by the Europeans, expect that programming acquired from European suppliers will have loudness measured with the BS.1770-2 algorithm.

And, finally, the FCC decided that enforcement should be by means of viewer complaints. Nevermind that viewers’ perceptions of loudness will be very subjective, and complaints will be virtually impossible to confirm … or rebut.

Oh well, maybe the process will turn out to be a success anyway. I hope so.