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FCC’s EAS Warning: Don’t Cry Wolf

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has sent its own warning to cable operators and other program distributors: Don’t play fast and loose with Emergency Alert System warnings in ads, promos — or anywhere else, for that matter.

The EAS tones are supposed to signal a national emergency and a briefing by the president.

In the latest and by far the most potentially costly shot across the bow, the FCC has proposed fining Viacom, ESPN and NBCUniversal a total of almost $2 million for what it said was misuse of alerts. The danger, of course, is that viewers will become desensitized to the unique sound of the alert if it is aired over and over in movies or ads.

The penalties stem from an ad the three companies aired repeatedly for the film Olympus Has Fallen, about a terrorist attack on the White House, that included Emergency Alert System warning tones that are only supposed to be used in a real crisis.

But they were only the latest proposed fines, following two findings against Turner Broadcasting System over the last four months — totaling $225,000 — for use of simulated EAS warnings in promos for the TBS talk show Conan and in a Best Buy ad.

In the case of Olympus Has Fallen, all three companies contested their liability for airing the tones in the movie trailer, but the FCC cited a recent spike in consumer complaints about simulated or actual EAS tones and said that the FCC has long prohibited their use in other than emergency situations, in part for the “cry wolf” element of desensitizing viewers to the importance of real tones. It also said that Viacom’s effort to “shift blame” to the ad agency that supplied the spot “must fail.”

The companies argued that the clip was a movie trailer and no one could reasonably mistake it for a real tone.

“Seven Viacom-owned networks transmitted the advertisement a total of 108 times over five days, resulting in a proposed forfeiture of $1,120,000,” the Media Bureau said. “Three ESPN-owned networks transmitted the advertisement a total of 13 times over four days, resulting in a proposed forfeiture of $280,000. Finally, seven NBCUniversal-owned cable networks transmitted the advertisement a total of 38 times over a span of six days, resulting in a proposed forfeiture of $530,000.”

The FCC takes the ability to pay into account when setting the fines, and did so in this case, noting that each company earns multiple billions of dollars in revenue.

The FCC also can take into account a company’s past compliance record, but said, without elaboration, that it found “nothing in the record or in the companies’ prior history of violations or compliance sufficient to reduce the proposed forfeiture amounts based on such factors.”

The FCC is clearly serious about cracking down on playing fast and loose with EAS warnings, which are supposed to signal that the president will address the nation in a time of national emergency. It has been ramping up the penalties.

In November, it proposed fining TBS $25,000 over a Conan promo that used a simulated warning, and most recently proposed fining Turner again, this time $200,000 for airing an ad from Best Buy featuring rapper A$AP Rocky that also included a simulated EAS tone.

The Olympus Has Fallen promo used an actual EAS tone.

TAKEAWAY

The FCC is cracking down hard on networks that broadcast tones similar to Emergency Alert System warnings.

H Block By the Numbers

Dish Network walked away with all the marbles (actually, spectrum licenses) in the FCC’s H-Block auction, the first of three such sales to raise money for FirstNet, the interoperable broadband network that the White House has just budgeted for $7 billion.

Bandwidth: 10 MHz

Licenses: 176

Rounds: 167

Bidding days: 24

Qualified bidders: 23

Winning bidders: 1

Gross bids: $1.564 million

SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission