January 26, 2013

CALM Act: Congress Re-Regulates Practice the FCC Deregulated in the 1980s

At one time, I honestly thought that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibited television advertisers from allowing the volume on television commercials from being much louder than that of the programming (I seem to recall a mention of it in a college communications and/or marketing course), and that may have been true up until the roll-back-all-the-regulations 1980s.  However, since that time, I think the problem of excessively loud TV commercials had became so pervasive and routine, that massive, routine complaints to lawmakers of all political persuasions and the FCC really forced Congressional lawmakers to re-regulate this highly annoying practice.

Indeed, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said "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."

That prompted a new law called the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act to be passed, which very recently took effect. President Obama actually signed the bill into law back in 2010, but for a variety of reasons, it FINALLY took effect on Thursday, December 13, 2012.  NBC's Today Show reported about the CALM Act going into effect.

The CALM Act comes more than a year after Congress actually passed legislation regarding commercial volume and directed the FCC to come up with enforcement rules. The architect of the bill was Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park, California), who pushed for the legislation after hearing complaints about loud commercials from her very own family.  The press release for the implementation of bipartisan CALM Act can be found at https://www.fcc.gov/media/policy/loud-commercials.

The FCC says that cable and satellite TV companies as well as local broadcasters are now required to make sure the volume on commercials is kept in check. The new rules went into effect on December 21, 2012.

It's not just viewers who were pushing for this legislation.  The L.A. Times reported that television producers also often griped about the discrepancies between the sound of commercials and of their programming.

"It may be the single best thing government has ever done," said "Modern Family" co-creator Steve Levitan told the L.A. Times (see http://lat.ms/X2zW26 for the article). "Now if they could just mute the volume of political ads, I'd be thrilled."

Some people have looked for technology to automatically level the sound, but many of the devices sold were pure junk and were little more than a costly and unnecessary add-on to an entertainment system that already has far too many wires to begin with.

In late December 2012, WNYC's "On The Media" program featured an entire show about that new CALM Act law, speaking to The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Williamson who explained to Bob why regulators weren't able to turn down the volume of commercials until now.  It's definitely worth having a look at, and that radio program can be seen at http://www.wnyc.org/story/238183-loudness-wars/.

The CALM Act effectively reverses the FCC's deregulation of commercial volume resulting in ever louder ads.  Penn State Telecommunications and Law professor Rob Frieden put it this way in his blog (see http://goo.gl/aYQa3 for his write-up):

"The unregulated marketplace for commercial volume led to an upward spiral, unmitigated by any notion of marketplace self-regulation."

Now, broadcasters, cable TV operators and satellite broadcasters are required by law to ensure that commercials and program content sound the same.  If the problem doesn't get better, complaints about excessively loud TV commercials can (and should) be filed by using the online complaint form to the FCC, known as form 2000G, at http://www.fcc.gov/complaints, and then selecting "Broadcast (TV and Radio), Cable, and Satellite Issues" and following the instructions to file such a complaint.

Penn State's Rob Frieden suggested this was really a function of an industry that was unable to police itself and therefore brought the consequences upon itself, writing:

"Congress reached a better solution: Regulation in the face of the inability of broadcasters to resist the temptation to offer advertisers a sneaky opportunity to 'cut through the clutter' by raising the volume of their spots.  Of course the advantage proved short term when more and more commercials got louder and louder."

He also notes that the bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, something almost unheard of in Congress these days.  In my opinion, there are probably more a few other industries that were once deregulated that now need re-regulation because they cannot be trusted to do the right thing for anyone other than their shareholders and, in turn, their own wallets.  But at least we can watch TV without adjusting the volume control every time a commercial comes on!

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