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FCC Proposes a $20K Fine for ESPN for Illegal EAS Tone

FCC seal
(Image credit: FCC)

WASHINGTON—The FCC Enforcement Bureau has issued a $20K fine against ESPN for “willfully violating the Commission’s rules that prohibit the transmission of false or deceptive emergency alert system” tones during a program. 

The FCC said the violation occurred during the airing of the program "30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle" on October 20, 2020. After receiving a complaint about the broadcast of the tones on October 27, 2020, the FCC started an investigation and notified ESPN. 

In a March 21, 2021 response, ESPN admitted that the tones had been broadcast but said they were part of the depiction of April 27, 2011 tornadoes “for storytelling purposes" during the documentary. 

ESPN also admitted that the transmission was not part of any actual emergency or EAS test. 

The network argued, however, that the broadcast EAS tones could “not have triggered any automated relay equipment” because the portion transmitted “did not include audio frequency-shift (AFSK) tones” and that the tones appeared very briefly in the program for only 1.83 seconds. 

The FCC rejected those arguments and proposed a higher fine than the $8,000 base forfeiture for section 11.45 of the Commission’s rules covering violations of emergency alerts.

“The nature of EAS violations requires particularly serious consideration because, among other issues, such violations undermine the integrity of the EAS by desensitizing viewers to the potential importance of warning tones and therefore implicate substantial public safety concerns,” the FCC concluded. It also  noted that ESPN had been fined in the past for violating these rules.  

“Although only a single transmission was involved, given the totality of the circumstances, and consistent with the Forfeiture Policy Statement, we conclude that an $8,000 base forfeiture plus an upward adjustment in the amount of $12,000 is warranted,” the FCC concluded. 

George Winslow

George Winslow is the senior content producer for TV Tech. He has written about the television, media and technology industries for nearly 30 years for such publications as Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Tech. Over the years, he has edited a number of magazines, including Multichannel News International and World Screen, and moderated panels at such major industry events as NAB and MIP TV. He has published two books and dozens of encyclopedia articles on such subjects as the media, New York City history and economics.