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FCC Proposes $1.9 million+ Fines for Viacom, ESPN and NBCUniversal for Misused EAS Tones

Yet again, the FCC is making a firm stance about the sanctity of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and is proposing major fines against Viacom, ESPN and NBCUniversal for recent infractions. In a Notice of Apparent Liability (PDF) sent to all three organizations, the FCC is asking for a voluntary forfeiture amount of $1,120,000 from Viacom, $530,000 from NBCUniversal and $280,000 from ESPN. In the notice the FCC states that each organization is guilty of “…transmitting or causing the transmission of EAS codes or the Attention Signal, or recordings or simulations thereof (EAS Tones), in the absence of an actual emergency or authorized test of the EAS.” Further, the FCC argues that, “Misuse of EAS Tones raises serious public safety concerns. Frivolous, casual, or other uses of EAS Tones for reasons other than their defined purpose can desensitize viewers to the tones and thereby undermine the effectiveness of the system in the event of an actual emergency.”

The infractions took place in March, 2013, when various television networks aired a commercial (specifically the “No Surrender” trailer) for the movie Olympus Has Fallen over numerous partner stations. Viewers complained that the ad contained simulated EAS tones, which were realistic enough to trick them into believing that there was an actual emergency. The FCC notice states,

The record established in these investigations demonstrates that the No Surrender Trailer included recordings of actual EAS codes and the Attention Signal, and not simulations thereof. In addition, the Commission’s review of the No Surrender Trailer provided by the Companies confirms repeated uses of the EAS codes and Attention Signal throughout the trailer, accompanied by visual text stating “THIS IS NOT A TEST” and “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Also accompanying the EAS codes and Attention Signal in the trailer were multiple visual images of “terrorists” surrounding the White House, scenes of the White House and other Washington, D.C. landmarks engulfed in flames, and military aircraft and combat vehicles in convoys patrolling the city.

This decision by the FCC comes on the heels of its enforcement advisory (and fines levied at Turner Broadcasting and a local television station) last fall and a second Notice of Apparent Liability (with a forfeiture amount of $200,000) against Turner Broadcasting in January for similar violations related to EAS tones.

Hopefully the nearly $2 million in proposed fines will help broadcasters (including cable and satellite outlets) realize that EAS tones are never allowed in commercials and promotional announcements, even if those ads have been prepared by outside agencies. Although ultimate responsibility for content rests with broadcasters, the advertising community should also get a refresher course about the verboten status of EAS tones.

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4 Responses to FCC Proposes $1.9 million+ Fines for Viacom, ESPN and NBCUniversal for Misused EAS Tones

  1. Bill March 3, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

    This seems rather disingenuous as back in early 2013 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) produced a public service announcement including EAS tone bursts. Are government agencies immune to breaking Part 11.45 of the regulations while they fine others?

  2. Matthew Lasar March 3, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

    Are you talking about this ad, which included several very brief sample emergency alert tone bursts so that mobile phone users would know what they sound like? Ok, guess it’s lawyer time. For sure, a very clever case can be made that the PSA is in violation of 47 U.S.C. § 325(a) “(prohibiting false or fraudulent distress signals)” and 47 C.F.R. § 11.45 “(prohibiting persons from transmitting or causing the transmission of the EAS Attention Signal or tones, or simulations thereof, under any circumstances other than a real alert or an authorized test of the EAS system).” But come on, the ad not for a scary movie. It is clearly designed to educate mobile users about emergency tones. Don’t we want that?

    • jonthebru March 4, 2014 at 1:53 am #

      Did you read the article? The ad was for a movie and is linked within the story. The PSA you highlight is a FEMA PSA.

      • Matthew Lasar March 4, 2014 at 6:57 am #

        Yes. I read the article. This comment was in response to Bill’s comment above. I should have replied directly to the comment instead of creating a new comment.

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