Federal Communications Commission proposed more than $1.9 million fines against
Viacom, ESPN, and NBCUniversal for running a movie promo containing Emergency
Alert System tones.
The fines were triggered by a series of complaints in March of 2013 over a
trailer for the movie “Olympus has Fallen,” which had run on several Viacom,
ESPN and NBCU nets. The trailer, “No Surrender,” opens with actual EAS tones. (
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FCC Enforcement Bureau asked the three companies about the complaints in
Letters of Inquiry. All acknowledged running it. Doing so in the absence of an
actual emergency is against the law. Section 11.45 of the commission’s rules states:
“No person may transmit or cause to transmit the
EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any
circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or
authorized test of the EAS.”
The reason is
twofold—faking out the public and triggering EAS encoders at other stations.
“The component sounds of an EAS message serve the dual
purposes of gaining the listener’s or viewer’s attention, and conveying
specially coded information for the equipment that is activated by the EAS
message as part of an actual emergency or authorized test,” the commission
noted in the Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture. “In particular, the
EAS codes consist of audible sounds in which encoded information concerning the
particular alert is embedded.”
One of the complainants wrote, “This is misleading and had
our entire family running to the
TV to find out what was going on, only to find it was a
commercial. Very tricky, misleading, and potentially dangerous when people get
used to ‘tuning out’ the EAS tones.”
Viacom cable nets
BET, Centric, Comedy Central, MTV, MTV2, Spike and VH1 collectively ran the ad
57 times. Viacom responded that the ad confirmed to its own internal 2012
guidelines, and that it has since updated those guidelines and should therefore
not be fined.
ESPN, which ran
the trailer 13 times on the main net, ESPN2 and ESPN News, had a similar
NBCU nets SyFy, USA and five regional RSN cable nets ran the
trailer a total of 33 times. It also didn’t prohibit EAS tones in its ad guidelines.
“NBCUniversal notes that, for advertising intended for its
cable programming networks, ‘the company focuses its review on certain ‘red
flag’ categories, including commercials relating to issues of public controversy,
gambling and casino advertising, nutritional supplements, homeopathic
treatments and weight loss. . .” and determined that the ‘No Surrender Trailer’
did not fall within one of the red flag categories.”
NBCU told the commission that word spread fast in the TV
community that the ad contained the tones. The trailer debuted March 4. By
March 6, several state broadcast associations sent out advisories. The
following day, Horizon Media, ad rep for the film’s distributor, FilmDistrict,
sent a fax to NBCU advising it to stop running the trailer.
All three companies noted their immediate corrective
measures, but the FCC said that given the nature and frequency the violations
and the companies’ ability to pay, it was leveling fines totaling $1,930,000
Viacom was popped $1,120,000 for seven networks running the
ad a total of 108 times over five days. (The dual-feed networks counted twice.)
The ESPNs ran the ad 13 times over four days and were fined $280,000.
NBCU was fined $530,000 for its networks running the promo 38
times over six days. (Again, dual feeds counted twice.)
The three have 30 days from March 3 to reply or pay up.