CALM Act: Reducing TV commercial volume was a feat


CALM wasn’t easy to achieve.

CALM Act, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation law, which limits the volume of TV commercials, took effect Thursday. It requires broadcasters to ensure that TV commercials maintain the same volume as the entertainment programming in which they are contained.

The legislative effort was begun more than four years ago by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who was blasted by blaring ads on TV during a family holiday gathering.

“This has been a top consumer complaint for decades,” Eshoo said during a news conference Thursday in Washington. “I never dreamed that this would strike the chord that it did with the American public.”


It would seem like an easy enough fix for broadcasters, but turning down the volume turned into a frustrating odyssey for lawmakers and regulators. The solution required a convention of engineers from around the world, rewriting broadcast standards and advances in audio technology. TV stations and cable and satellite TV operators have spent the last two years upgrading their equipment to better detect sound fluctuations.

Normal listening levels are about 70 decibels for a television show, but levels can vary. The switch to digital television in 2009 made the problem worse because the higher fidelity sound made the commercials seem even louder, industry officials said.

Sound metering equipment long used by broadcasters was not sensitive enough to discern fluctuations in volume.

“The old type of meter measured volts. They were just looking for technical indications of loudness, and those indications did not always relate to human perception,” Thomas Lund, a development manager of Denmark’s TC Electronic, said in a telephone interview. “Levels and loudness are not always the same.”

For example, high levels of sound for sustained periods come across to the ear as louder than for short duration. The old meters, Lund said, did not measure that dimension of sound.

“The people who were creating the commercials learned how to exploit the meters and fly below the radar,” Lund said. The result: blaring ads.


The CALM legislation marked an unusual case study of bipartisan support in Washington. Rep. Eshoo introduced a one-page bill called the CALM Act in the House in June 2008. Two years later, a companion bill authored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)unanimously passed the Senate.

In December 2010, the House passed the legislation and President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 15, 2010. The Federal Communications Commission adopted its rules implementing the law a year ago, and provided a yearlong grace period so that stations could install the new equipment.

Viewers can report super-loud commercials to the FCC on the agency’s website or by calling 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-225-5322).


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