Broadcasters Need to Look Beyond CALM Act


By George Winslow

With the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM Act, going into effect Dec. 13, legislators, regulators and broadcast engineers will be eliminating a long-standing viewer complaint  –  that ear-splitting ads seeming to assume high decibel levels were, according to marketers, the best way to pitch products. But the TV industry shouldn’t be acting like its audio problems are solved. Inconsistent audio levels are only one aspect of providing great sound into the home. Broadcasters will be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t aggressively address the bigger issue of audio quality.

As many local stations focused on making the transition to digital and HD video in recent years, audio was often an afterthought. But poor audio won’t fly in a competitive landscape, where a recent survey from Horowitz Associates found that one in four (24%) digital cable homes owns a home theater system and around 83% of these digital subs own an HDTV — many of which come with excellent speakers.

In an arena where stations are competing with hundreds of cable channels and over-the-top services like Netflix, investing in improved audio would seem like a no-brainer.

Yet, during wide-ranging conversations with over fifteen top broadcasters just before NAB last April, several station groups admitted they had complied with the CALM Act by installing an audio processor to reduce excess volume in their signal right before transmission. While this is a simple approach, it also can reduce the dynamic range of the audio, ultimately reducing its quality.

Ken Hunold, staff engineer of audio production at Dolby, which has been working with many producers, broadcasters and cable operators on CALM Act implementation, notes that many people are now paying much closer attention to audio issues.

“They haven’t paid that much attention to audio in the past and one of great things the CALM Act has done is to raise everyone awareness of those issues,” he noted.

While “some stations may just bolt on a loudness processor to control everything,” he believes that the industry in general is now adopting more sophisticated approaches.

In some cases, there is a move towards trying to address quality issues and CALM Act compliance as early as possible in the production chain.

The CALM Act allows for programs or even whole channels to be certified as CALM Act compliant while also preserving audio quality at the same time, Hunold explains. Once a program has been produced correctly and certified, “no one needs to mess with it afterwards and the highest quality can be maintained,” he says.

Getting local advertisers to comply with the CALM Act requirements is more problematic, but Hunold believes national advertisers are also embracing the regulations in a way that could be beneficial. Rather than simply turning up the volume to get people’s attention, he says, creative directors are increasingly turning to better audio mixes to catch people’s attention.

If so, the audio coming out of TV sets in 2013 won’t just be calmer and more soothing; it could also be more sonorous.