THE BLOG
02/28/2013 09:04 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Calming the Volume of TV

Don't look now but we have another new law on the books. This one has the soothing acronym "the CALM Act." That's short for The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act. In layman's terms it requires TV stations, cable operators, purveyors of satellite TV and other providers to make sure TV commercials aren't so darned loud! The CALM Act requires commercials be no louder than the surrounding program in which they are shown.

I always figured TV ads were extra loud so you could still hear them from other parts of the house -- like the kitchen or bathroom -- if you stepped away during the commercial break. My husband, the audiophile, maintains that commercials are really no higher in volume than the accompanying program and that it is just, "The dynamic mid-range of sound advertisers use to get our attention" -- things like swelling music and explosions along with the announcers. I nod my head as if I understand what he's talking about but I really don't. To me loud is loud.

Let's agree. We have all been bombarded by over-the-top, blaringly obnoxious commercials and lurched for the remote to turn down the volume, right? Well, now the law mandates there is to be an official place to complain. The Federal Communications Commission has set up a web based complaint center at www.fcc.gov/complaints . I visited the site and found a simple five question one-page form which asks for information about exactly what time and on what channel you heard the offending ad. There is also a toll free telephone number to call for a "consumer specialist" to help you through the process.

I had some questions of my own. I wondered how many complaints the FCC has gotten since the regulations went into effect in mid-December 2012. I wondered how many staffers have been dedicated to take our complaints, how the FCC decides if a complaint is valid and what happens to repeat offenders. I also pondered what the FCC meant with this statement in its news release announcing the CALM Act complaint line:

A commercial may have louder and quieter moments, but, overall, it should be no louder than the surrounding programming. This may mean, however, that some commercials will comply with the new rules, but still sound "too loud" to some viewers.

Huh? What does that mean? How can a TV ad that is still "too loud" be in compliance with the new law that requires all television volume to be within the same approximate range? So I called the FCC in Washington for answers to what I thought were pretty routine questions.

Several calls and emails over two days netted me exactly nothing. In fact, it left me with the clear impression that there is no solid infrastructure in place to handle complaints, no dedicated staff and no definitive tally on the number of complaints already received. This was the extent of the FCC's official response:

In the two months since the CALM act rules took effect, the FCC has been examining complaints to determine if there are any patterns and trends behind them. If a pattern becomes apparent, the FCC can then initiate an investigation.

Wait a minute. A complaint shouldn't have to be part of a trend. It should stand alone and be checked out to see if it is valid or not. And, let's be clear, the FCC has had plenty of time to get its act together. The CALM Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi in 2008, passed Congress in early December 2010 and was signed into law by the president shortly thereafter. It granted the FCC one full year to get the complaint system in place and ready to go.

I doubled back and tried to get information from an FCC "consumer specialist" at that toll-free number, but guess what? I never got past the annoying phone system recording which makes no mention of CALM Act complaints. A phone number to help you complain that doesn't help -- priceless. I guess you could fill out the on-line complaint form and submit it but I can't guarantee your grievance will go anywhere. I can guarantee that you will be frustrated if you try to get through on the toll free number.

There's no stopping my curious brain so I called Senator Wicker's office to ask if this was the kind of government response to taxpayers he had envisioned as he struggled to win bipartisan support for the bill. His spokesperson told me bluntly, "We got it over the goal line but obviously there are some things the FCC still needs to do to get it where the senator intended."

Look, this is hardly life and death stuff here but the law is the law. I remember the hoopla that accompanied passage of the CALM Act fourteen months ago and all the politicians who proudly said it would empower the public and improve Americans' quality of life.

My journey to get information about the real-world application of legislation also makes me wonder about all the other regulatory laws Congress passes and then entrusts to government agencies to set in to motion.

If the CALM Act is any indication of the way things work we taxpayers are not getting our money's worth.


Diane Dimond can be reached via her web site: www.DianeDimond.net

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