If you monitor some numbers, broadcasters should be feeling pretty good about the audio quality of their signals. Consumer complaints about overly loud commercials received by the FCC under the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act have declined dramatically, from 4,777 in December 2012 to only 656 in December 2013, the most recent data available. Not bad for a country with 115 million TV homes.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy about the implementation of the rules, which were passed by the FCC in December 2011 and began to be enforced a year later. “In the last year broadcasters and operators have been hearing a growth in complaints not from consumers, but from production companies that supply TV programming,” says Jeffrey Riedmiler, senior director of the sound platform group at Dolby Laboratories.
That is prompting both vendors and buyers to rethink some of their approaches to audio monitoring. “We’re seeing an evolution from people saying ‘Let’s get it done and comply with the loudness rules’ to hearing them say, ‘Gee, this doesn’t sound very good—can we do something about it?’” says Oliver Masciarotte, director of customer experience at Minnetonka Audio, which offers a variety of audio-related products. Sound Reasoning Many audio specialists recommend focusing on the production and postproduction process so that content complies with regulations but preserves the dynamic range of sound that is so important to the emotional impact of a TV show or movie. To help with that, Dolby has been rolling out “intelligent loudness” technologies that offer richer metadata about loudness so that each frame of a video carries a digital signature showing it is compliant. “That way, big [cable and multichannel] operators can monitor hundreds of feeds automatically and let the compliant programming pass through” without further processing that might hurt the audio quality, explains JC Morizur, senior director of broadcast pro solutions at Dolby Laboratories.
Broadcasters are also demanding that producers supply them with CALM Act-compliant material, says John Terrey, VP of sales at Wohler Technologies, a major supplier of monitoring tools. “Broadcasters don’t generate any revenue by complying and they are trying to do the absolute minimum to make sure they aren’t fined, so they are putting the burden on the content providers.”
This may give producers more creative control, but it can be a heavy burden on local stations and smaller producers. This is encouraging TV players large and small to address the audio issues in a more automated fashion.
Some vendors are offering products that can monitor both 5.1 surround sound and regular stereo signals. “Most programming from the major broadcasters is in 5.1, but most viewing is still done on TV sets with stereo speakers and the process of down-mixing can create a number of problems,” says Richard Cabot, founder and CTO of Qualis Audio, which has sold its products to several large networks.
An Ear for Quality
Stations that operate duopolies or have several digital channels are also looking for technologies that can handle all of their signals. To address that demand, Linear Acoustic at NAB will be showing its high-density AERO.x that can process two 5.1 signals or four downmixed signals. “Two of these units in one rack offers a very compact way of processing streams,” says Larry Schindel, director of technology for Linear Acoustic.
Also at NAB, Nugen Audio will introduce its Multi- Monitor software solution for multichannel loudness and true-peak monitoring as well as a number of enhancements to its existing products, says Jon Schorah, the company’s founder and creative director.
While loudness rules don’t apply to over-the-top content, the growing popularity of these services has increased demand for tools to monitor digital streams, explains Hiren Hindocha, president and CEO of Digital Nirvana. In addition to its loudness tools, Digital Nirvana at NAB will show its AnyStream IQ 2.0 cloud-based OTT monitoring solution.
Vendors are also responding to some changes in loudness standards, including the 2013 updated version of the ATSC A/85, which made it closer to the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) standard. “Now that standards are more closely aligned, U.S. companies that are sending content to Europe should not have to make additional changes,” says Mike Waidson, application engineer, video test, at Tektronix, which provides a wide range of audio monitoring and loudness tools.
But ultimately, a number of audio experts still emphasize the human ear. “Meters and automation are great. But at the end of the day, viewers are using their ears to hear the sound,” Schindel says. “And those of us in the broadcast industry shouldn’t be afraid to use ours.”
CALM WITHOUT BORDERS
While a large number of U.S. and European broadcasters have already implemented technical solutions to comply with regulations in North America and Europe, many of their counterparts from Latin America and Asia will be in Las Vegas during the 2014 NAB Show next month looking for ways to comply with new or pending legislation in their countries.
“Loudness issues are very much starting to spread globally,” says Larry Schindel, director of technology for Linear Acoustic.
“We’re seeing a lot of activity in Southeast Asia, South America and Eastern Europe.” “We’ve seen a slowdown in interest in the U.S. but the market for loudness is very buoyant overseas,” adds Chris Shaw, executive VP of sales and marketing at Cobalt Digital. During NAB, the company will show its Spotcheck audio loudness measurement and recorded data logging system with improved compliance monitoring and logging capabilities.
Given the growing overseas demand, vendors are working to improve their technologies to monitor new regulations in other markets. “At this point, much of the development work is focusing on what other countries are doing,” says Ralph Bachofen, VP of sales and marketing at Triveni Digital. The company will be launching StreamScope MT-50, the fifth generation of its DTV transport stream analysis and troubleshooting system, which includes a variety of loudness tools.