Cable/Satellite TV Category

Big Fines for False EAS Tones Demonstrate the Need for a Good Indemnification Clause

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 3, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

There was quite a stir today when the FCC, despite being closed for a snow day, issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing very large fines against Viacom ($1,120,000), NBCUniversal ($530,000), and ESPN ($280,000) for transmitting false EAS alert tones. According to the FCC, all three aired an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that contained a false EAS alert tone, with Viacom airing it 108 times on seven of its cable networks, NBCUniversal airing it 38 times on seven of its cable networks, and ESPN airing it 13 times on three of its cable networks.

The size of the fines certainly drew some attention. Probably not helping the situation was the ad's inclusion of the onscreen text "THIS IS NOT A TEST" and "THIS IS NOT A DRILL" while sounding the EAS tone. The FCC launched the investigation after receiving complaints from the public.

All three entities raised a variety of arguments that were uniformly rejected by the FCC, including that "they had inadequate notice of the requirements and applicability of the rules with respect to EAS violations." What particularly caught my eye, however, was that all three indicated the ad had cleared an internal review before airing, and in each case, those handling the internal review were apparently unaware of Section 325 of the Communications Act (prohibiting transmission of a "false or fraudulent signal of distress") and Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules, which states that "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."

Back in 2010, I wrote a post titled EAS False Alerts in Radio Ads and Other Reasons to Panic that discussed the evolution of the FCC's concerns about false emergency tones in media, which originally centered on sirens, then on Emergency Broadcast System tones, and now on the Emergency Alert System's digital squeals. Two months later, I found myself writing about it again (The Phantom Menace: Return of the EAS False Alerts) when a TV ad for the movie Skyline was distributed for airing with a false EAS tone included in it.

That was the beginning of what has since become a clear trend. Those initial posts warned broadcasters and cable programmers to avoid airing specific ads with false EAS tones, but were not connected to any adverse action by the FCC. After three years of EAS tone tranquility, the issue reemerged in 2013 when hackers managed to commandeer via Internet the EAS equipment of some Michigan and Montana TV stations to send out false EAS alert warnings of a zombie attack. The result was a rapid public notice from the FCC instructing EAS participants to change their EAS passwords and ensure their firewalls are functioning (covered in my posts FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts and EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality), but no fines.

From there we moved in a strange direction when the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed a public service announcement seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System, but used an EAS tone to get that message across. Because it did not involve an actual emergency nor a test of the EAS system, the PSA violated the FCC's rule against false EAS tones and broadcasters had no choice but to decline to air it. The matter was resolved when the FCC quickly rushed through a one-year waiver permitting the FEMA ad to be aired (Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay).

Late last year, however, the evolution of the FCC's treatment of false EAS alerts turned dark (FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts) when the FCC issued the first financial penalties for false EAS alerts. The FCC proposed a $25,000 fine for Turner Broadcasting and entered into a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky radio station for airing false EAS alert tones. The FCC indicated at the time that other investigations were ongoing, and more fines might be on the way.

We didn't have to wait long, as just two months later, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $200,000 against Turner Broadcasting for again airing false EAS alert tones, this time on its Adult Swim network. The size of the fine was startling, and according to the FCC, was based upon the nationwide reach of the false EAS tone ad, as well as the fact that Turner had indicated in connection with its earlier $25,000 fine that it had put in place mechanisms to prevent such an event from happening again. When it did happen again, the FCC didn't hesitate to assess the $200,000 fine.

Today's order, issued less than two months after the last Turner decision, ups the ante once again, proposing fines of such size that only some of the FCC's larger indecency fines compare. The FCC is clearly sending a signal that it takes false EAS tones very seriously, and the fact that the ads containing the EAS tones were produced by an independent third party didn't let the programmers off the hook. In other words, it doesn't matter how or why the ads got on the air; the mere fact that they aired is sufficient to create liability.

So what lesson should broadcasters and cable networks take away from this? Well, the all too obvious one is to do whatever it takes to prevent false EAS tones from making it on air. However, an equally useful lesson is to make sure that your contracts with advertisers require the advertiser to warrant that the spots provided will comply with all laws and to indemnify the broadcaster or network if that turns out not to be the case. That won't save you from a big FCC fine and a black mark on your FCC record, but it will at least require the advertiser to compensate you for the damages you suffered in airing the ad and defending yourself. Unfortunately, many advertising contracts are not particularly well drafted (and some are just a handshake), which can expose you to a variety of liabilities like this unnecessarily.

It is therefore wise to have both your ad contracts and your advertising guidelines carefully reviewed by counsel experienced in this area of the law. Vigilant review of ads submitted for airing is an excellent first line of defense, but as demonstrated in today's decision, it won't do much good if the individuals reviewing the ads don't know what to look for.


Scott Flick of Pillsbury to Speak on "Will the Aereo Case Force a Rewrite of Communications and Copyright Laws?"

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 16, 2014

Scott R. Flick will speak on a panel discussing Aereo and its impact on communications and copyright laws during this Webinar hosted by the Bloomberg BNA on January 16, 2014 from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM.


FCC Prophecy on False EAS Alerts Comes True to the Tune of $200,000

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 14, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Over the years, I've written numerous times about the FCC's adverse reaction to advertisers seeking to make their ads more attention-getting through inclusion of an Emergency Alert System tone. The most recent was this past November, when the FCC proposed a $25,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for an EAS tone-laden Conan promo, and announced a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky TV station for a local sports apparel store ad containing an EAS alert tone.

I titled the post FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts, and noted at the end of it that

ominously, today's FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that "[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted." Given today's actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.
Today, the FCC fulfilled that prophecy, proposing an additional $200,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for distributing another ad containing EAS tones. According to the FCC, Turner's Adult Swim Network aired ads produced by Sony Music Group promoting an album by rap artist A$AP Rocky and the album's availability at Best Buy stores. While the ad did not contain any digital data from an EAS tone, it did simulate the EAS audio tone itself. The ad aired seven times over the network's East Coast feed, and then was repeated seven more times in the West Coast feed three hours later.

The FCC's decision is "spirited" (at least by FCC standards), managing to convey a fair degree of exasperation, principally because of Turner's prior violation and the fact that

In response to those [earlier] complaints, which also emphasized the potential impact on public safety of the transmission of such material, Turner represented to the Commission that it had changed certain of its internal review practices. Nevertheless, another Turner-owned channel, less than one year later, transmitted the A$AP Rocky/Best Buy advertisement 14 times over a six day period, which also contained simulations of the EAS codes. Thus, despite its experience with the problem of misusing EAS codes and Attention Signals, Turner continued to violate Section 11.45 of the Commission's rules and Section 325(a) of the Act, indicating a higher degree of culpability in this instance. Therefore, based on the number of transmissions at issue, the amount of time over which the transmissions took place, the nationwide scope of Adult Swim Network's audience reach, Turner's degree of culpability, Turner's ability to pay, and the serious public safety implications of the violations, as well as the other factors as outlined in the Commission's Forfeiture Policy Statement, we find that a forfeiture of two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) is appropriate.
Beyond the unprecedented size of the fine for such a violation, today's decision is also notable because, unlike the self-inflicted wound of putting an EAS tone in a program promo, this case involved a spot produced by a third party. While the FCC has appeared in the past to have had at least some sympathy where a problem in a third-party ad "slipped through", the FCC's sympathy seems to be exhausted at this point. Having said that, it is worth noting that the FCC went after the program network rather than the individual cable and satellite systems that actually transmitted the spots to the public. Cable and satellite providers can take at least some solace in that.

While the nationwide audience and prior violation may have made the size of this fine somewhat unique, it is safe to say that the FCC has reached the point that it is unlikely to find a false EAS tone, no matter the circumstances, to be an excusable "oops" on the part of a program distributor. While the FCC might once have been willing to just admonish a violator and save the fines for repeat offenders, it appears that there will no longer be any free bites at the false EAS tone apple, and that each bite will be appreciably more expensive than the last.

Of course, if the FCC is hoping that steadily escalating fines will cause violators to lose their taste for the forbidden fruit of false EAS tones in ads, the question is whether advertisers will also hear that message, or are broadcasters, cable operators and satellite TV providers forever doomed to play a game of whack-a-mole (whack-a-tone?) with third-party ads?


FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts

Scott R. Flick

Posted November 5, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Over the years, I've written a number of times of the FCC's concern about airing emergency sounds, from the siren blare telling you that Indiana Wants Me, to Emergency Alert System tones promoting the movie Skyline, to an actual EAS alert warning of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules states that "[n]o 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, every time that annoying EAS digital squeal slips onto the airwaves during a commercial rather than in an EAS test, it is guaranteed that the employee charged with screening ads is going to have a very bad day.

Fortunately, most broadcasters and cable operators are well aware of the restriction and go to great lengths to screen out such content. Unfortunately, advertisers and ad agencies are often not so attuned, and given the sheer amount of ad content being aired, an EAS-laden ad will slip through sooner or later.

Aggravating the situation is that while airing the tone from the old Emergency Broadcast System could cause public confusion, the EAS squeal contains digital information that is relayed to other media entities, whose EAS equipment then reads that data and automatically transmits the alert on down the alert chain. The farther the alert travels from the original source (where observant viewers or listeners might have figured out it was just part of a commercial), the greater the likelihood of public confusion and panic.

While the FCC certainly takes EAS false alerts seriously, it has seemed to recognize that the media entity airing the ad is usually as much a victim of the false alert signal as anyone, and as long as prompt action was taken to prevent a recurrence, has not been particularly punitive in its enforcement actions. Its strongest reaction to false EAS alerts up till now has been to issue an Urgent Advisory after the Zombie Apocalypse telling EAS participants to change the default password on their EAS equipment to prevent hackers from commandeering the equipment over the Internet to send out false alerts.

That changed late today, when the FCC issued a News Release and an FCC Enforcement Advisory warning against "False, Fraudulent or Unauthorized Use of the Emergency Alert System Attention Signal and Codes", along with a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for $25,000 against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and a $39,000 consent decree against a Kentucky TV station.

According to the NAL, Turner aired a promo for the Conan show that contained a simulated EAS tone in connection with an appearance by comic actor Jack Black. The FCC was not amused. While the base fine for violating Section 11.45 is $8,000, the FCC found that the seriousness of the violation, particularly given the nationwide transmission of the false alert signal, as well as Turner's ability to pay, justified increasing the proposed fine to $25,000. While not specifically addressed in the NAL, the fact that Turner produced the promo itself, rather than this being a case of a third party advertiser slipping it past Turner, appears to have drawn the FCC's ire.

More interesting still is the $39,000 consent decree, where the Kentucky station did not contest that it aired an ad for a sports apparel store that "stops in the middle of the commercial and sounds the exact tone used for the Emergency Alert warnings." Besides the eye-opening $39,000 payment, the consent decree requires extensive further efforts by the licensee, including implementing a Section 11.45 compliance program for its staff, creating and distributing a compliance manual to its staff, implementing a compliance training program, filing annual compliance reports for the next three years, reporting any future violations to the FCC, and developing and implementing a program to "educate members of the public about the EAS alerts, the limits of public warning capabilities, and appropriate responses to emergency warning messages." With regard to this last requirement, the educational program must include:

  • Airing 160 public service announcements (80 on the station's primary channel and 80 on its multicast channel).
  • Interviewing local emergency preparedness officials and including vignettes on emergency awareness topics at least twice a month on the station's morning program.
  • Expanding the station's website to include links to local emergency agencies, banner messages with emergency-related information, and video messages from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local emergency preparedness agencies.
  • Installing an additional SkyCam at its tower site and using "special radio equipment" to communicate with local emergency management officials and which will relay alerts to the station's master control personnel.
  • Leasing tower space to the local emergency management agency for a "new modernized communications system" linking local agencies and organizations.
  • Using social media and digital technologies to promptly disseminate emergency alerts, including posting information culled from the station's public service announcements, vignettes, and the local emergency management agency on the station's Facebook page weekly, and including timely late-breaking news coverage of severe weather conditions and forecasts on the station's smartphone app.
  • Utilizing specific computer hardware and software to render weather data and maps for use on-air, online, and in mobile applications, as well as to track severe weather events.
  • Periodically reviewing and revising the station's educational program to improve it and ensure it is current and complete, including conferring with the National Weather Service and state, county and federal emergency preparedness managers and public safety officials.
The consent decree does not indicate how many times the offending ad aired, or if the station produced it, but the severity of the consent decree terms is startling. Also noteworthy is the FCC Enforcement Advisory's admonition that not just broadcast stations and multichannel video programming distributors are on the hook, but that "[t]he prohibition thus applies to programmers that distribute programming containing a prohibited sound regardless of whether or not they deliver the unlawful signal directly to consumers; it also applies to a person who transmits an unlawful signal even if that person did not create or produce the prohibited programming in the first instance."

The FCC has therefore decided that it is time to crack down on violations, and ominously, today's FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that "[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted." Given today's actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.


FCC Adopts Proposed FY 2013 Regulatory Fees

Tony Lin

Posted August 15, 2013

By Tony Lin

The FCC has released a Report and Order which includes its final determinations as to how much each FCC licensee will have to pay in Annual Regulatory Fees for fiscal year 2013 (FY 2013), and in some cases how the FCC will calculate Annual Regulatory Fees beginning in FY 2014. The FCC collects Annual Regulatory Fees to offset the cost of its non-application processing functions, such as conducting rulemaking proceedings.

The FCC adopted many of its proposals without material changes. Some of the more notably proposals include:

  • Eliminating the fee disparity between UHF and VHF television stations beginning in FY 2014, which is not a particularly surprising development given the FCC's recently renewed interest in eliminating the UHF discount for purposes of calculating compliance with the FCC's ownership limits;
  • Imposing on Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) providers the same regulatory fees as cable providers beginning in FY 2014. In adopting this proposal, the Commission specifically noted that it was not stating that IPTV providers are cable television providers, which is an issue pending before the Commission in another proceeding;
  • Using more current (FY 2012) Full Time Employees (FTE) data instead of FY 1998 FTE data to assess the costs of providing regulatory services, which resulted in some significant shifts in the allocation of regulatory fees among the FCC's Bureaus. In particular, the portion of regulatory fees allocated to the Wireline Competition Bureau decreased 6.89% and that of all other Bureaus increased, with the Media Bureau's portion of the regulatory fees increasing 3.49%; and
  • Imposing a maximum annual regulatory rate increase of 7.5% for each type of license, which is essentially the rate increase for all commercial UHF and VHF television stations and all radio stations. A chart reflecting the FY 2013 fees for the various types of licenses affecting broadcast stations is provided here.
The Commission deferred decisions on the following proposals in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that launched this proceeding: 1) combining the Interstate Telecommunications Service Providers (ITSPs) and wireless telecommunications services into one regulatory fee category; 2) using revenues to calculate regulatory fees; and 3) whether to consider Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) providers as a new multi-channel video programming distributor (MVPD) category.

The Annual Regulatory Fees will be due in "middle of September" according to the FCC. The FCC will soon release a Public Notice announcing the precise payment window for submitting the fees. As has been the case for the past few years, the FCC no longer mails a hard copy of regulatory fee assessments to broadcast stations. Instead, stations must make an online filing using the FCC's Fee Filer system, reporting the types and fee amounts they are obligated to pay. After submitting that information, stations may pay their fees electronically or by separately submitting payment to the FCC's Lockbox. However, beginning October 1, 2013, i.e. FY 2014, the FCC will no longer accept paper and check filings for payment of Annual Regulatory Fees.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted June 30, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

June 2013

Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Issues Heavy Fines for Late-Filed Children's Television Programming Reports
  • Motel with Multichannel Video Programming Distribution System Is Cited for Excessive Cable Signal Leakage

FCC Fines Multiple Licensees for Failure to Timely File Children's Television Programming Reports

As broadcasters have learned, the FCC takes licensees' public inspection file and reporting obligations very seriously. This month, the FCC issued multiple Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against licensees for failing to file Children's Television Programming Reports on Form 398 in a timely manner. On June 18 and 21, the FCC issued a total of seven decisions proposing to fine stations between $3,000 and $18,000 for not filing their Form 398s on time.

Under the FCC's rules, commercial television stations must report their children's educational and informational broadcast programming efforts each quarter by electronically filing FCC Form 398, the Children's Television Programming Report. Historically, the FCC has fined stations for failing to file their reports, and there would be nothing new about the FCC issuing an NAL for "failure to file".

In these seven cases, however, the stations were not fined for a failure to file their reports, but for failing to file their reports on time. In the decisions, the FCC issued the following fines:

  • For a station that missed the filing deadline twenty-three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $18,000.
  • For a licensee that missed the filing deadline eleven times on one station and thirteen times on another, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $15,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline fourteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline ten times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000 (eight reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000 (three reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the deadline sixteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline eleven times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $3,000.

The cases were all relatively similar. As an example, in the $15,000 NAL, the licensee filed license renewal applications for its two Class A TV stations. At the time of the applications, the licensee did not disclose that it had filed some of its Children's Television Programming Reports late, and in fact, certified in its renewal applications that it had timely filed all relevant programming reports with the FCC. However, the Commission subsequently reviewed its records and found that the licensee failed to file programming reports on time for 11 quarters for one station and 13 quarters for another.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch

John K. Hane

Posted April 16, 2013

By John Hane

Recently, TVNewsCheck.com ran a short item noting that a large broadcast group (not a network owned and operated group) and a large multichannel video distributor (MVPD) successfully concluded carriage negotiations. There was no interruption of service. Given the successful outcome, I was surprised to see that someone posted a comment regarding the piece saying the deal illustrates why the FCC should tighten its broadcast ownership rules. No matter how many times I read comments of this sort, I am perplexed that people actually believe it's a good thing for the government to mandate that broadcasters be the underdogs in all major negotiations that impact the quality and availability of broadcasters' programming. If anything, government policy should encourage broadcasters to grow to a scale that is meaningful in today's complex television marketplace. Not one of the other major distributors makes its programming available for free.

If independent (non-O&O) broadcasters aren't permitted to achieve a scale large enough to negotiate effectively with upstream programmers and downstream distributors, you won't have to wait long see high cost, high quality, high value programming available for free to those who choose to opt out of the pay TV ecosystem. It's much better to have two, three or four strong competitors in each market, owned by companies that can compete for rational economics in the upstream and downstream markets, than to have eight or more weak competitors, few of which can afford to invest in truly local service or negotiate at arms-length with program suppliers and distributors.

For those who have not been paying attention, the television market has changed profoundly in the past 20 years. The big programmers and the big MVPDs have gotten a whole lot bigger. The largest non-O&O broadcast groups have grown too, but not nearly as much. Fox, Disney/ABC, NBCU and the other programmers are vastly bigger companies with incomparable market power vis-a-vis even the largest broadcast groups. The same is true of the large MVPDs, which together serve the great majority of television households.

There's nothing inherently bad about big content aggregators and big MVPD distributors. And anyway, they are a fact of life. Despite their size, each is trying to deliver a competitive service and deliver good returns for shareholders. That's what they are supposed to do, and in general (with a few exceptions) they serve the country well. But again, they are much, much larger than even the largest broadcast groups. If you believe that having a viable and competitive free television option is a good thing, that's a problem.

So in response to the suggestion that the FCC further limit the scale of broadcasters, I reply: why does the government make it so damn hard for the only television service that is available for free to bargain and compete with vastly larger enterprises that are comparatively unregulated?

Continue reading "Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch"


FCC Issues Lessons Learned From First Ever Nationwide EAS Test

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 14, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

As our readers are aware, we did a great deal of reporting before and after the first-ever Nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) Test conducted on November 9, 2011. The purpose of that test was to assess the readiness and effectiveness of the system in the event of an actual national emergency. Broadcasters, as well as cable, satellite, and wireline providers across the country (EAS Participants), all took part in the test. For a quick refresher, see my previous posts on the test here, here, here, here, and here. Late this past Friday, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a report summarizing the outcome of the national test entitled: "Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test".

As the FCC and FEMA have made clear on numerous ocassions, the national EAS test was not intended to be a pass or fail event, but was to be used to identify and address the limitations of the current EAS. The Report concludes that the national EAS alert distribution architecture is sound and that the national test was received by a large majority of EAS Participants and could be seen and heard by most Americans. The results of the test show that more than 80 percent of EAS Participants across the country successfully received and relayed the FEMA test message.

The Report also indicates, however, that there are a number of technical areas where the system can be improved. According to the Report, among the problems that impeded the ability of EAS Participants to receive and/or retransmit the emergency Action Notification (EAN) issued by FEMA, and of the public to receive it, were:

  • Widespread poor audio quality;
  • Lack of a Primary Entry Point (PEP) in an area to provide a direct connection to FEMA;
  • Use of alternatives to PEP-based EAN distribution;
  • The inability of some EAS Participants either to receive or retransmit the EAN;
  • Short test length; and
  • Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.

As a result of its findings, the Report recommends that another nationwide test be conducted after the FCC commences a number of formal rulemaking proceedings seeking public comment on steps to improve EAS related to these and other shortcomings.

In its Report, the Bureau also recommends that, in connection with any future EAS testing, the FCC develop a new Nationwide EAS Test Reporting System to improve the electronic filing of test result data. The Report also encourages the Executive Office of the President to reconvene the Federal EAS Test Working Group to work with Federal partners and other stakeholders to use the results of the test to find ways to improve EAS and plan for future nationwide tests.

Despite the audio problems and other issues identified in the Report with respect to the nationwide EAS test, the first ever test appears to have achieved its goal of helping the FCC, FEMA, and EAS Participants identify areas where EAS can be improved in the event of an actual emergency. If the recommendations outlined in the Report are implemented by the FCC, the public will likely have a number of opportunities during upcoming rulemaking proceedings to provide their input to the FCC on ways to further improve the reliability of the nation's EAS.


FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 12, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

With the State of the Union Address occurring tonight, the FCC wasted no time in advising broadcast stations and other EAS Participants to take immediate steps to prevent unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System like the fake zombie attack alerts that went out over a few stations in Michigan and Montana yesterday. While federal and state authorities are investigating the source of those hoax alerts, which appear to have come from outside the U.S., the FCC has just released instructions for EAS Participants in hopes of heading off any more false alerts.

The haste with which these instructions have been generated is demonstrated by the fact that they are not even on FCC letterhead, nor formatted for such a release. It is also worth noting that they are not described as "recommendations" or "guidelines", but as actions EAS Participants "must" or "are required" to take. A copy of the FCC release can be found here, but the full text is below:

Urgent Advisory: Immediate actions to be taken regarding CAP EAS device security.

All EAS Participants are required to take immediate action to secure their CAP EAS equipment, including resetting passwords, and ensuring CAP EAS equipment is secured behind properly configured firewalls and other defensive measures. All CAP EAS equipment manufacturer models are included in this advisory.

All Broadcast and Cable EAS Participants are urged to take the following actions immediately

  1. EAS Participants must change all passwords on their CAP EAS equipment from default factory settings, including administrator and user accounts.
  2. EAS Participants are also urged to ensure that their firewalls and other solutions are properly configured and up-to-date.
  3. EAS Participants are further advised to examine their CAP EAS equipment to ensure that no unauthorized alerts or messages have been set (queued) for future transmission.
  4. If you are unable to reset the default passwords on your equipment, you may consider disconnecting your device's Ethernet connection until those settings have been updated.
  5. EAS Participants that have questions about securing their equipment should consult their equipment manufacturer.

I'll have more to say about the zombie apocalypse in the next few days, as I was already writing a post on the subject when the FCC release arrived. However, I wanted to get the FCC's message out to broadcasters, cable operators, and other EAS Participants quickly, so that they can take action to prevent further hoax alerts, as well as be aware of the seriousness with which the FCC is taking these false alerts. Management should make sure that their staff is on alert for unusual EAS activity, particularly during major events coverage.

While the farcical nature of the initial hoax caused more amusement than panic, it is easy to see how a more realistic message could have caused far more damage. Yesterday's events will hopefully be isolated incidents, but we will be seeing a lot more attention focused on the security, as opposed to the reliability, of the EAS system.


Time to Get CALM for the Holidays

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted December 13, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick

Today, December 13, 2012, is the effective date of the FCC's rules implementing the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act. As a result, all commercial broadcast television stations and multichannel video program providers ("MVPDs") must have by today either sought a waiver or installed equipment and undertaken procedures to comply with the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) A/85: "ATSC Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television," also known as the RP.

For locally inserted commercials, stations must install and maintain equipment and software that measures the loudness of the content and ensures that the dialnorm metadata value matches the loudness of the content when encoding audio for transmission (try saying that three times fast!). For commercials already embedded in the programming, stations must be able to pass through that CALM-compliant programming without adverse changes.

As long as that benign pass-through is accomplished, stations can rely on appropriate certifications from program suppliers to demonstrate compliance with respect to embedded commercials. If a program supplier does not provide the certification, "large" television stations and "large" and "very large" MVPDs (as defined by the FCC) must conduct annual spot checks of the programming. The first spot checks must be completed one year from today, by December 13, 2013. Details on these compliance requirements can be found in Paul Cicelski's post on the CALM Act earlier this year. We will also shortly be posting a Pillsbury Advisory on ensuring continuing CALM Act compliance.

As noted above, the FCC created a waiver procedure for stations and MVPDs where compliance would be financially burdensome, allowing them up to a year of additional time to come into compliance. Waiver requests were originally due back in October, but the FCC announced two days ago that it would accept waiver applications from small television stations filed through today. "Small" television stations, that is, those with less than $14 million in revenues in 2011 or that are in markets 150 to 210, were not required to submit highly detailed financial data with their waiver requests, and the FCC indicated that waiver requests would be deemed granted upon filing unless the FCC later advises the applicant otherwise.

In response, more than 125 waiver requests were filed. Earlier this week, the FCC granted two of them, including one from a television station in the midst of a studio move that will include installation of upgraded equipment for CALM Act compliance. Stations that do not have a waiver request on file with the FCC by today need to have the equipment and procedures in place to ensure they are operating in compliance with the CALM Act. That means that stressed television viewers will be having a calmer holiday season, while station and MVPD engineers and managers stress out trying to remain CALM.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 28, 2012

By Scott R. Flick and Lauren A. Birzon

September 2012
Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Follows Up a $25,000 Fine With a $236,500 Fine
  • Two Tower Owners Fined for Fading Paint

FCC Issues Second Fine to Cable TV Operator for $236,500
As we previously reported in October 2011, the operator of a cable television system in Florida was fined $25,000 for a variety of violations of the FCC's Rules, including failing to install and maintain operational Emergency Alert System ("EAS") equipment, failing to operate its system within the required cable signal leakage limits, and failing to register the cable system with the FCC. This month, the FCC issued a second Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order ("NAL") to the operator for continued violations of the FCC's cable signal leakage and EAS rules and for failing to respond to communications from the FCC requiring that the operator submit a written statement of compliance.

In January 2011, agents from the Tampa Office of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau inspected the cable system and discovered extensive signal leakage, prompting the issuance of a NAL in 2011. The FCC has established signal leakage rules to reduce emissions that could cause interference with aviation frequencies. Sections 76.605 and 76.611 of the FCC's Rules establish a maximum cable signal leakage standard of 20 microvolts per meter ("µV/m") for any point in the system and a maximum Cumulative Leak Index ("CLI") of 64. If potentially harmful interference cannot be eliminated, the FCC's Rules require that the system immediately suspend operations following notification from the FCC's local field office. Normal operations cannot resume until the interference has been eliminated "to the satisfaction of" the FCC's local field office.

In early September 2011, agents from the Enforcement Bureau conducted a follow-up inspection of the cable system. During the inspection, the agents discovered 33 leakages, 22 of which measured over 100 µV/m, and found that the CLI for the system was 86.97, well in excess of the maximum permitted. Two days after the inspection, the local field office issued an Order to Cease Operations, directing the cable system to cease operations until the leakages were eliminated and to seek written approval from the local field office prior to resuming normal operations. At the time of its issuance, the President of the cable system verbally consented to abide by the terms of the Order. However, the cable system operator never contacted the field office to seek approval to resume operations, and the field office has yet to approve further cable system operations.

Between September 2011 and March 2012, agents from the FCC inspected the cable system an additional five times. During those inspections, the agents found that not only had the cable system resumed operation without permission, but they once again observed numerous signal leakages during each inspection.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


I Know What You Watched Last Summer - Video Privacy Protection Act Creates Risks for All Video Programming Distributors

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted May 15, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick

There has been a recent uptick in class action lawsuits against video programming distributors under the Video Privacy Protection Act. The VPPA was enacted in 1988 in response to the disclosure of the video tape rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork during his confirmation hearings. Reflecting the era of its passage, the law refers to information regarding "video cassette tapes", but is much broader, requiring those who are involved in renting, selling or distributing "prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual materials" to discard consumer information after a period of time (generally one year) and to get consumers' consent before disclosing information about an individual's viewing habits.

In this day and age of apps that share the songs individuals listen to and the newspaper articles they read, the VPPA has been cited as a major impediment to similar online sharing regarding video downloads and rentals. Congress has considered legislation that would amend the VPPA to permit social media sharing of an individual's video viewing without requiring that individual's consent on a title by title basis. While it may seem an anachronism to those accustomed to rampant social sharing, the VPPA's requirements, and those of similar state privacy laws, apply to far more than just local video rental stores.

The attached Client Alert discusses a recent California case in which an individual brought a class action lawsuit against Sony. The suit claimed that Sony had retained the history of customers' PlayStation Network movie and video game purchases and rentals, and that it disclosed such information to the new owner of the PlayStation Network when the network was transferred, and that the new owner then disclosed that information to advertisers.

As a review of the Client Alert reveals, any video on demand provider, whether cable, satellite, or online, needs to be knowledgeable of the requirements of the VPPA. The VPPA provides an avenue for individuals to bring class actions on behalf of thousands of affected customers, and to seek actual, liquidated, and/or punitive damages for the violation, as well as legal fees. Because of this, the financial stakes can be quite high for what might be an entirely unintentional violation of consumers' privacy.