Today the sound, tomorrow the picture?

too loud2Have you noticed that watching TV is less annoying lately? Commercials are now required to be no louder than the programming surrounding them. On December 13 an FCC regulation went into effect that was designed for just that. The CALM Act, approved by Congress in 2010, directed the Federal Communications Commission to make it possible to watch TV without constantly turning down the volume of advertisements.

Since the introduction of television in the 1950s, many consumers have complained to the FCC  about the loudness of commercials. What prevented the FCC from doing anything in response was that the issue was technically complicated. Multiple factors can contribute to the perceived loudness of a broadcast, including the strength of the electrical signal, the degree to which the sound signal is compressed. In addition, there was no standard method for content creators and broadcasters to measure broadcast volume.  

In 2006, the International Telecommunication Union–the same UN-affiliated standards body that has published specifications for protecting TV viewers from photosensitive seizures–proposed a new technique for measuring broadcast volume that allows uniform evaluation across national boundaries. In addition, the ITU proposed a numerical “target loudness” using the new loudness gauge. Thanks to the ITU, it became possible to define, comply with, and enforce limits on loudness.

Four years later the United States Congress passed the CALM Act with little debate, by unanimous vote in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who introduced the bill, said it was by far the most popular bill she’d ever sponsored. She said the bill “gives consumers peace of mind, because it puts them in control of the sound in their homes.” She was quoted saying, “If I’d saved 50 million children from some malady, people would not have the interest that they have in this.” By that time the UK, France, Norway, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands were already limiting the loudness of commercials or had begun action on the issue. 

These days even the video game industry is paying attention to some kind of audio standards, if only for consistency across products. According to an July 2012 interview in Designing Sound, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is looking at smoothing out the volume among their own game titles.

Unfortunately, in this country making TV safer to watch for the visually sensitive–or making video games safer to play–isn’t on the legislative agenda. Consumers and policy makers aren’t aware of the need. The technical groundwork is already in place for regulations to prevent screen-induced photosensitive seizures, thanks to ITU specifications (and similar versions developed by the UK and Japan), and to similar guidelines adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium for web-based content.

Here’s where things stand at the moment in making US electronic screens safe for those with photosensitive epilepsy: Photosensitive epilepsy protection standards now apply to all federal agency websites. The Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool (PEAT) downloadable from the PACE Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison makes available to website designers and software developers a free tool that tests screen content for compliance with seizure safety guidelines. The tool is not intended for entertainment industry developers, however; these companies need to buy commercially available assessment tools.

I’ve written previously about some of the complexities of bringing new screen safety standards to the American telecommunications industry. I”m going to learn more about the legislative process in coming months. My State Representative filed a bill last week to create a commission to study the issue of video game safety for minors at home and in school here in Massachusetts. It will take considerable time to even bring the bill to a public hearing, but as I’ve recently learned, all bills filed in the Massachusetts legislature receive a public hearing at some point in the two-year session. The two years just began this month. Stay tuned.

9 Comments on “Today the sound, tomorrow the picture?”

  1. Erika says:

    I really appreciate your article. What a sad shame that these companies don’t want to do what’s best for children. My son used to have seizures while playing video games. We put him on medicine and took him off the games for a few years. We have slowly let the games back into his life but I never know if it is the right thing. He is wanting to purchase need for speed carbon for the pc and I am trying to figure out if it is safe. Is there some way for me to check specific games?

    • jsolodar says:

      There is no way to check specific games because manufacturers don’t provide this information and there aren’t any analysis tools for consumers. But I am happy to check specific games for you using the industrial strength analysis tool I have on loan from the folks who make the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. I looked at some clips of Need for Speed Carbon and put them through the analyzer, and I would be cautious about getting that game. Racing games in general, along with first-person shooters, are more likely to have high-speed, high-impact scenes and graphics effects that can easily be visually unsafe. At the beginning of the promotional trailers for the game there’s a graphics sequence that hands down fails the safety test. I don’t have the games themselves; I do the testing using gameplay clips and trailers that have been posted online.


    • Erika says:

      Oh my goodness! You are so kind and generous to help us out! I will get a list of the games he is interested in from him in the morning and I will send them to you. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this.

    • Erika says:

      My son made a long list for you 🙂 we appreciate any help you are able to give. Skyrim for pc and Xbox 360. Assassins creed IV black flag for Xbox and pc. Battlefield 3 for Xbox and pc. Forza 4 and 5 for pc and Xbox. Tomb raider for pc and Xbox. Need for speed hot pursuit for pc and Xbox . I am so thankful that you are sharing information about all of this.

    • jsolodar says:

      I can’t test by platform because I don’t actually own/subscribe to any of the games. I rely on trailers and gameplay clips posted on YouTube for test material. I have to use some judgment as to how representative the scenes are if it’s gameplay not posted by the developer/publisher. If the clip is of a game mod, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to test.

      That said, for practical purposes I look for trailers and short game-play clips…it gets time consuming to download and test (sometimes video conversion is necessary) longer sequences. I test 4 or 5 clips for each game (sometimes more, depending on what’s available) and then move on if I haven’t found any violations. All this means is that I haven’t found violations in the material that I tested…it doesn’t guarantee the safety of the game.

      I didn’t find safety violations in Battlefield 3, Forza 4, or Skyrim (tested 2013). The others, though, did contain images that could trigger seizures:

      Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag
      Forza 5
      Tomb Raider (tested in 2012)
      Need for Speed Hot Pursuit

      I think it’s great you wanted to look into this!


  2. John Ledford says:

    You’re welcome.I think that you are correct.I haven’t heard of any video game flash rate legislation in any state.I think I’m going to wait to see how much publicity the F-18 Hornet fighter pilot’s civil lawsuit(I’m betting it will go to trial) acquires before I try to do something similar with Alabama legislation.

  3. jacki k says:

    You’ve pushed the ball a little further uphill! Good luck on your “new skill added: political advocacy!”.

  4. John Ledford says:

    Good luck with the legislation,Jessica!

    • jsolodar says:

      Thanks, John. I’m not aware that this has been initiated in any other state…and some educational video games used in school can be kind of flashy.

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