In what has been a recurring theme at CommLawCenter, I’ve written about the FCC rule prohibiting the airing of Emergency Alert System codes and tones unless there is an actual emergency or EAS test. Despite the rule, the draw of using an EAS tone is apparently irresistible, and we’ve seen it used in movie ads, oil company ads, and even zombie alerts.
Unlike many FCC rules, the ambiguity of which can leave seasoned practitioners arguing over what is or isn’t prohibited, Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules has been a model of clarity:
“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.”
As a result, while advertisers might succumb to the temptation to slip an EAS tone (really, it’s more of a digital squeal) into their ads, the broadcaster’s duty was straightforward–try to catch the ad before it airs, and then let the advertiser know that the ad can’t be run unless it is modified to delete the tone.
Yesterday, however, life suddenly became more complicated for broadcasters when stations began receiving copies of a Public Service Announcement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System using the EAS tone to get that message across. Station operators were understandably confused, thinking that surely FEMA, as a fellow federal agency to the FCC (and an expert on all things related to EAS), wouldn’t be distributing a PSA that included an illegal EAS tone.
That was not, however, a safe assumption. On multiple occasions, federal and state agencies have, for example, distributed ads or PSAs that lack the sponsorship identification announcement required by the FCC, with one of the more famous examples leading to a 2002 FCC decision refusing to grant a waiver of its sponsorship identification rule to allow the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to run anti-drug ads without disclosing that it was the sponsor.
As stations began to decline to run the PSAs for fear or incurring the FCC’s wrath, the FCC moved quickly (and quietly, I might add) to break from its prior approach, and today released a decision granting an unprecedented one-year waiver of Section 11.45, permitting FEMA spots to use the EAS tone as long as they make “clear that the WEA [Wireless Emergency Alert] Attention Signals are being used in the context of the PSA and for the purpose of educating the viewing or listening public about the functions of their WEA-capable mobile devices and the WEA program.” The FCC also “recommend[s] that FEMA take steps to ensure that such PSAs clearly state that they are part of FEMA’s public education campaign.”
The good news today is that the FCC approached the problem head on by granting a waiver rather than trying to “interpret” its rule to somehow not cover the FEMA PSA tones. Such an interpretation would have left broadcasters scratching their heads every time an EAS tone pops up in a future spot, trying to figure out whether that use might also fit into such an exception. The bad news, however, is that broadcasters have now been told that fake EAS tones are sometimes okay, and they need to be watching the FCC’s daily releases to determine if a particular use has suddenly become acceptable. Hopefully, such spots will actually educate the public to better understand the purpose of EAS alerts, as opposed to merely acclimating them to hearing the tone on-air and learning to ignore it.