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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Everyone! Stay CALM! I'm in charge here. - Alexander Haig

The CALM Act. 
I really didn’t think I’d see a lot about it but it seems the CALM act is everywhere. Yes, today’s the deadline for implementation and, no doubt, tomorrow the Notices of Apparent Liability will start flying.
I’ll be up-front with you:  I’ve written about this before and about the futility of passing laws about anything that starts with “psycho”, in this case, psychoacoustics, especially when trying to rely on machines to control the outcome.  Might as well outlaw a disease; in a similar vein, it doesn’t matter since physics behaves as it does and doesn’t pay much attention to congress.
More on that later.  I want to discuss this little thing called compliance.  You see, not only must stations comply with the rules, they must document their compliance.  A number of operations maintain programming for 90 days after airing.  Others, as much as 2 years.
The 90 days is the minimum retention period and during that time, the station must be able to provide any segment of the broadcast day to an inspector or government representative should they request it.
That means that if a viewer challenges a telecast – maybe he/she heard a commercial that was too loud – the commission can come back and say, “Give us 5 minutes on either side of the commercial and the commercial, itself.  Oh, and send the log of the dialnorm on the audio.”  Huh?  Yep.  You have to be able to step up and provide the data/metadata that supports your claim that you were legal at the time.
Stations are keeping the logs for longer and longer periods because of the possibility of complaint.  But wait, there’s more.  It’s not just CALM compliance.  It’s everything else.  Closed captioning?  You don’t want to be challenged.  Political ads?  Same thing.  Contests and all else, too.  You really want to be able to pull up the goods, send ‘em off to the commission with a note like, “See?!”
That’s a “fur piece” as Bob Shreve used to say on the SchoenlingAll-Night Theater, from the old audio or VHS loggers.  It requires much more.  And, son of a gun, there are a couple of devices out there that’ll do it and more.
Last nite, a bunch of us got the inside scoop from Ken Dillard at Digital Nirvana, Inc.  Now I don’t know how they decided on that name – maybe it means somebody with all 1’s on their bank account number.  That aside, these guys make the Monitor IQ box.  Yes, there are others out there.   This box is particularly intriguing.  It can do it all.  And more.  Ken explained how it integrates with sales, programming, legal, and engineering.  First, you can watch all the stations in the market.  Then, as it archives, you can pull up any segment and look at it – content, captioning, CALM, and (in metered markets) ratings.  
You have to think about watching a sportscast running against other stations in the market and easily spotting what keeps folks around and what drives them away…overnight.  This is not a cheap box, but given all the new rules and the fines that can be incurred, it’s cheap insurance.
And now for my favorite topic:  the audio, itself.  Let’s all pick dialnorm -24.  Cool.  Our processors are going to take everything to -24.  That’s cool, too, but, first do they really know what’s going on around them?  When Martha and John are whispering sweet nothings on the porch swing, should the processing really take the following commercial down to that level?  As it brings it up, it creates a different mood.  Is that OK with the advertiser?  How does it change the spot?  And what happens to the louder one after it?  Oh, and did I pay for a particular level of modulation when I bought the commercial time?
Let’s go farther.  What if (as I’ve written about before) the mix has an overabundance of highs or lows?  What are you going to do?  The system says dialog is the benchmark.  Well,  just the simplest look at an oscilloscope while listening to dialog tells you that there isn’t a 1:1 relationship between the actual power in a piece of audio and the apparent loudness.  But that’s exactly what we’re asking a processor to look for and act upon.
So, when that 5.1 mix comes barreling through and totally masks the dialog, what’s going to give?  Well, as they say in the retirement home, “Depends.”
And that means that every mix is different and it’ll be the psychoacoustic elements that will cue the viewer as to whether the sound is balanced from scene to scene.  Once again, you can process it like crazy but until you can teach the machine to listen like a human, it’s going to get it wrong a good part of the time.  Check the link below.  Read it closely.  If you don’t see any problems, you didn’t read it closely!
And when you realize that most of the ATSC parameters for CALM and dialnorm are based on those developed in Europe (including France, the folks that gave us SECAM), you also know that it means stations will be compliant – and still sound bad.  How do I know?  Take a trip to London, Frankfurt or Rome.  Listen.   Case closed.
But, compliance is the goal so, congratulations to all the techs who have been slaving over the past months to get their stations to that point.  We’ll be listening...on receivers...all of which will vary and will interpret audio and its metadata differently, thereby creating a [vastly] different listening experience for each receiver owner.

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