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The Phantom Menace: Return of the EAS False Alerts

In what has become one of our most popular posts at CommLawCenter, a few months ago I discussed a radio ad that contained an “attention getting” Emergency Alert System tone that was activating broadcast stations’ EAS equipment around the country. The post noted that airing the commercials violated Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules (“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 earlier post also noted that these ads potentially violated Section 73.1217 of the FCC’s Rules, which is the FCC’s prohibition on airing broadcast hoaxes. These rules are the result of the FCC’s longstanding concern with the airing of material that could cause public panic, dating all the way back to the Orson Welles Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, just four years after the FCC was created by Congress.

Television stations have now joined their radio brethren in unintentionally airing Emergency Alert System tones. The Society of Broadcast Engineers disclosed yesterday that a television ad for the new movie Skyline, which hits theaters tomorrow, began airing earlier this week with an EAS tone repeated six times throughout the length of the spot. A copy of the spot can be found on the SBE website here, with the EAS tones being very audible in the background.

Stations airing such spots put themselves at risk of adverse action by the FCC, particularly for any airings that occur after the station has learned of the issue. However, stations that aired the spot before SBE’s announcement yesterday are not off the hook, as the FCC holds broadcasters liable for the content they air, and normally takes the position that stations should have checked the spots before they aired for problematic content.

While an EAS tone sounds like digital hash to the human ear, it contains a lot of information that is used to trigger the EAS receivers of stations in a “daisy chain” fashion to quickly spread emergency information. In that regard, each signal is like human DNA, containing information that allows you to determine its origin. In this case, the EAS signal being used is a recording of a Pennsylvania statewide monthly test that fails to include the normal “End of Message” tone. As a result, stations whose EAS equipment is activated by another station airing the false tone could suddenly find themselves retransmitting the content of the other station for a couple of minutes after the tone airs.

Unfortunately, because it is generally the broadcast station and not the creator of the ad that will be held liable, advertisers are not always adequately incentivized to make sure their ads comply with FCC regulations. That means it is up to broadcasters to check each and every ad they run for violations of the law, including violations of the FCC’s sponsorship identification rule, the FCC’s rules involving ads in children’s programming, and ads with questionable content, whether it be indecency, defamation, false product claims, or, in this case, false EAS alerts.