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:
- Big-4 Network, Among Others, Settles With FCC Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations
- Despite Self-Disclosure, Sponsorship ID Violations Land $233,000 Proposed Fine
- Topeka TV Licensee Enters Into Consent Decree Over Late-Filed KidVid Reports
False Alarm: FCC Enters Into Multiple Consent Decrees Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations
In a single day last week, the FCC announced four separate Consent Decrees in response to unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tone across various media outlets. The parent companies of a Big-4 broadcast network and two cable channels, as well as the licensee of two southern California FM stations, each agreed to significant payments to settle investigations into violations of the FCC’s EAS rules. According to the Consent Decrees, unauthorized emergency tones have reached hundreds of millions of Americans in the past two years alone.
The Emergency Alert System is a nationwide warning system operated by the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that allows authorized public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention. Once the system is activated, television and radio broadcasters, cable television operators, and other EAS “participants” begin transmitting emergency messages with distinct attention tones. These tones consist of coded signals that are embedded with information about the emergency and are capable of activating emergency equipment. Wireless Emergency Alerts (“WEA”), which deliver messages to the public via mobile phones and other wireless devices, also use attention signals.
Emergency tones may not be transmitted except in cases of: (1) actual emergencies; (2) official tests of the emergency system; and (3) authorized public service announcements. In an accompanying Enforcement Advisory published on the same day as the Consent Decrees, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau noted that wrongful use of the tones can result in false activations of the EAS, as well as “alert fatigue,” in which “the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.”
For the Big-4 network, it all started with a joke. Around the time of last year’s nationwide EAS test, a late-night network talk show parodied the test in a sketch that incorporated emergency tones. According to the Consent Decree, the network’s programming reaches almost all US television households through hundreds of local television affiliates, as well as through the network’s owned and operated stations. Shortly after the episode aired, the company removed the offending portions of the program from its website and other streaming sites and did not rebroadcast the episode. Despite these remedial actions, the damage was already done; in response to the Enforcement Bureau’s investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay a $395,000 “civil penalty.”
The parent companies of two major cable channels entered into similar agreements. In one instance from this past year, an episode of a popular show set in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world used simulated EAS tones on multiple occasions over the course of an hour. That episode was transmitted on eight separate occasions over a two-month period. According to the Consent Decree, within weeks of the episode’s debut, the Enforcement Bureau reached out to the network regarding the unauthorized uses of the tone and, after a brief investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay $104,000 to resolve the matter. Continue reading →