E. Iowa stations near deadline for volume-controlled commercials

Technology change is an added expense for stations

Some Eastern Iowa viewers might have noticed a change — perhaps an improvement — in their television viewing experience of late. We’re not talking about the disappearance of political ads, although many are relieved those have stopped.

We’re talking about the implementation of the CALM Act, or Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation, which Congress passed in December 2010, requiring commercials to have the same average volume as the programs they accompany. Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission one year to establish rules requiring 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 apply a set of methods that measure and control the loudness of digital programming, including commercials.

For most stations and operators, new equipment is needed to apply 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 in some viewing areas come under congressional volume control.

But many stations and providers in Eastern 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 its 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 that this change has been a long time coming. The current professor of cyber and media law, who served on the Federal Communications Commission 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 about a specific network in a specific region, the commission will investigate it at that time.

“I would hope that the major broadcasters would comply,” Johnson said, adding that “This is something people should be listening for. If they continue to hear disparities in volume, they ought to contact the FCC.”

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.”

The new equipment required to make the change did come at a cost, Schrader said, but it was not outrageous, and he views it as “the cost of doing business.”

What’s the impact?

The new volume control regulations 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 altogether, 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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