In an enforcement advisory this week, the Federal Communications Commission reminds broadcasters about the guidelines for using Emergency Alert System codes and attention signals. Prompted by complaints over the use of emergency alert tones in commercials or promotional spots on television, the FCC not only released details about recent policy violations (TBS and a Kentucky television station were cited), but also spelled out the current rules. According to the advisory:
“Any transmission, including broadcast, of the EAS Attention Signal or codes, or a simulation of them, under any circumstances other than a genuine alert or an authorized test of the EAS system violates federal law and undermines the important public safety protections the EAS provides.
There is growing concern about the misuse of the EAS tones and Attention Signal to capture audience attention during advertisements and at other times when there is no emergency or test. The FCC may issue sanctions for such violations, including monetary forfeitures.”
Within this advisory, the FCC also includes details about recent violations to the EAS policy. A Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for Forfeiture was issued (PDF) to Turner Broadcasting in the amount of $25,000. This notice is in response to complaints that Turner utilized a “simulation of the EAS Attention Signal” as part of a promotion for the Conan O’Brien show. According to the NAL, a complaint was received about a promotional spot on TBS in 2012 that utilized “the emergency weather tones to gain attention for a commercial regarding Jack Black being on the show.”
The FCC argued in its NAL, “…it is imperative that the public not be desensitized to the serious implications of the EAS codes and Attention Signal or a simulation thereof. By including in its network programming the EAS codes and Attention Signal or simulations thereof, in non-emergency situations that are promotional or commercial in nature, Turner created a ‘cry wolf’ scenario…”
A second entity, MMK License LLC, was also found to have violated FCC policy by airing “a commercial that included an auditory signal that simulated the EAS Attention Signal” over television station WNKY in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Through a consent decree (PDF) with the FCC, MMK has agreed to pay $39,000 to “settle apparent violations” related to the airing of the ad for the Fan Wear & More Store. According to the consent decree, the FCC received a complaint alleging “that ‘The Fan Wear & More Store is running an advertisement that stops in the middle of the commercial and sounds the exact tone used for the Emergency Alert warnings.'”
These rules are in place so that listeners will take notice when an actual emergency occurs. In a statement on Tuesday, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau Acting Chief Robert H. Ratcliffe warns, “Today’s enforcement action sends a strong message: the FCC will not tolerate misuse or abuse of the Emergency Alert System…It is inexcusable to trivialize the sounds specifically used to notify viewers of the dangers of an incoming tornado or to alert them to be on the lookout for a kidnapped child, merely to advertise a talk show or a clothing store. This activity not only undermines the very purpose of a unique set of emergency alert signals, but is a clear violation of the law.”
In order to spread the word about the importance of not misusing Emergency Alert signals and tones, the FCC not only issued an advisory and press release, but also included stipulations in the MMK consent decree that the station will install new compliance procedures in order to avoid future violations. Additionally, the station will launch a public service campaign in order to inform the public about the role and proper use of the Emergency Alert System.