Articles Posted in Emergency Alert System

Published on:

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:

  • Tower Owners Cited for Unsafe and Improperly Registered Tower
  • FCC Fines LPFM for Unauthorized Operation, Failure to Admit FCC Agents, and EAS Violations
  • Violations of Environmental, Historic Preservation, and Antenna Structure Registration Rules Lead to $38,000 Fine

FCC Cites Owners of Improperly Lit Tower

Owners of an Illinois tower were cited for failing to maintain required obstruction lighting, failing to check the structure’s lighting visually at least once every 24 hours or use an automatic alarm system to detect a lighting outage, failing to notify the FAA of lighting outages, failing to repaint the structure to maintain good visibility, and failing to notify the FCC of a change in ownership of the tower.  Such failures violate Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules, which governs antenna construction, marking, and lighting.  The FCC noted that it may only impose monetary fines against non-regulatees after issuing a citation (as it did here), the violator is given a reasonable opportunity to respond, and the violator subsequently still engages in the conduct described in the citation.  If the owners are later found to remain in violation of the rule provisions detailed in the citation, the FCC may consider both the conduct that led to the citation and the conduct following the citation in assessing a fine.

Following a 2018 complaint reporting a lighting outage for the tower, the FCC asked the FAA to issue a 90-day NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) alerting pilots of the hazard.  Chicago FCC agents contacted the then-owner of the structure and were told the lighting issues would be corrected.  A field inspection revealed that the structure was over 200 feet in height, that the structure was being used for radio transmissions, that it lacked the required flashing red light, and that the remaining obstruction lighting was extinguished.  The FCC again contacted the structure’s owner and followed up with a Notice of Violation (“NOV”).  There is no record that the owner responded to the NOV.  Future field inspections revealed that the paint on the tower was severely faded and chipped.  An entity leasing the tower and two FCC licensees collocated on it were subsequently contacted in an effort to bring the tower into compliance.

By 2022, the parcel of land on which the tower sits was sold to the current owners.  Two months prior to that sale, an FCC agent again visited the site and observed that the structure had not been repainted and that all of the red obstruction lights were extinguished.  The agent also concluded that no licensees or users were operating from the tower.  Under the applicable FAA advisory, the structure, because it exceeds 200 feet in height, must be painted and have at its top at least one red flashing beacon to ensure an unobstructed view of at least one light by a pilot, along with two or more steady burning red lights mounted at the one-fourth and three-fourth levels of the overall height of the tower, and two red flashing beacons at the mid-level of the structure.  The tower must also be marked with alternate sections of aviation orange and aviation white paint and repainted as necessary.  These safety requirements must be met until the structure is dismantled, even if the tower is no longer being used for transmissions.  The FCC noted that any lighting outage must be reported to the FAA, and that failing to update the tower’s Antenna Structure Registration interferes with the FCC’s ability to identify the owner when attempting to remedy lighting outages.

The current owners of the tower must respond to the citation within 30 days and provide a written statement describing how they acquired the tower, provide a copy of any agreements regarding conveyance of the structure, provide current antenna structure ownership information, describe the actions they have taken to prevent future violations of the FCC’s rules, and provide a timeline by which they will complete any corrective actions.

LPFM Station Fined $25,000 for Unauthorized Operation, Failure to Admit FCC Agents, and Violating EAS Rules

Following an October 2020 Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”), a Florida low power FM licensee must now pay $25,000 after the FCC found no reason to change the originally proposed fine amount.  The Commission found that the licensee violated Section 301 of the Communications Act (failing to operate a station in accordance with its license) and Sections 73.840 (operating a station outside of the permitted transmitter power output parameters), 73.845 (maintaining an LPFM station in compliance with the LPFM technical rules), 73.878(a) (making a broadcast station available for inspection by FCC representatives), and 11.11(a) (participation by broadcast stations in the Emergency Alert System (“EAS”)) of the FCC’s Rules. Continue reading →

Published on:

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 Proposes $20,000 Fine for Broadcast of False EAS Alert Tone
  • Mississippi Television Station Fined $18,000 for Late Issues/Programs Lists and Failure to Disclose Violation
  • Illinois High School Agrees to Consent Decree for Violations Relating to Periods of Silence, Late Issues/Programs Lists, and Failing to File a Biennial Ownership Report and EEO Program Report

Nevada Radio Licensee Receives Proposed Fine of $20,000 for Transmitting False EAS Tone

The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) to a radio station licensee for violating the Commission’s Emergency Alert System (EAS) rules—specifically Section 11.45 of the Commission’s Rules, which prohibits the transmission of false or deceptive EAS tones.

The EAS is a nationwide public warning system designed to alert the public in an emergency. In order to maintain the effectiveness of such emergency alerts, EAS tones may only be aired in specific circumstances, such as an actual emergency, an authorized test, or a public service announcement educating the public about EAS. Section 11.45 strictly prohibits airing an EAS tone, or simulations thereof, except in connection with of one of these permitted uses.

In October 2020, the FCC received a complaint alleging that a Nevada radio station had transmitted EAS tones during a talk show that were not connected to an actual emergency. In January 2021, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau sent a Letter of Inquiry to the broadcaster seeking information regarding the potential violation.

The broadcaster responded that the tones had indeed aired, and included an audio recording of the program in question. The broadcaster indicated it did not review the program containing the EAS tones prior to broadcast as the program was part of a programming block purchased by the talk show’s host.  It noted that the program containing the EAS tones was also simulcast on the digital subchannel of another co-owned radio station and on an FM translator.

Based on the broadcaster’s admissions and the FCC’s review of the audio recording, the Commission found that the broadcaster willfully violated Section 11.45 of the Commission’s Rules. The FCC also noted that while the base fine for violations of the EAS rule is $8,000, it looks at the particular facts of each case and may upwardly adjust that amount based on a number of specific factors, including the number of repetitions, the duration of the violation, the audience reach of the transmission, and the public safety impact.

In this instance, the FCC emphasized the stations’ sizeable audience reach, noting that the violation was exacerbated by rebroadcasts on the digital subchannel and FM translator. Because all three stations are located in Las Vegas, a top 50 market, the audience reach was substantial. The FCC therefore concluded that an upward adjustment was warranted, proposing a total fine of $20,000. The company has 30 days from release of the NAL to pay the fine or file a written statement seeking reduction or cancellation of the proposed fine.

FCC Proposes $18,000 Fine for Mississippi Television Station’s Late-Filed Issues/Programs Lists

The FCC fined a Mississippi television station $18,000 for failing to timely upload all of its quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to its Public Inspection File. The station recently filed a license renewal application, and an FCC staff review of the station’s Public Inspection File revealed that during the license term, the station uploaded twenty-one of the Lists late and failed to properly disclose these violations in its application.

Section 73.3526(e)(11)(i) of the FCC’s Rules requires every commercial television station to place in its Public Inspection File “a list of programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” The list must include a brief narrative of the issues addressed, as well as the date, time, duration, and title of each program addressing those issues. The list must be placed in the Public Inspection File on a quarterly basis within 10 days of the end of each calendar quarter.

The FCC noted that six of the Lists created during the license term were uploaded more than one year late, eleven Lists were uploaded between one month and one year late, and four Lists were uploaded between one day and one month late. The licensee also did not disclose the violations in its license renewal application. When the licensee failed to provide an adequate explanation for the late uploads, the Commission concluded that the licensee willfully and repeatedly violated Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules. The FCC also found that the failure to report the violations constituted an apparent violation of Section 73.3514(a) of its Rules, which requires that applications filed with the Commission be accurate and complete.

Section 1.80(b)(10) of the FCC’s Rules establishes a base fine of $10,000 for Public Inspection File violations and a base fine of $3,000 for failure to file a required form or information. However, the Commission may adjust the amount upwards or downwards based upon factors such as the “nature, circumstances, extent and gravity of the violation,” in addition to the licensee’s “degree of culpability” and “any history of prior offenses.” Taking those factors into account, the FCC proposed a fine of $15,000 for the late-filed Lists and a fine of $3,000 for the failure to disclose those violations in the license renewal application, resulting in a total proposed fine of $18,000. Noting that the violation did not constitute a “serious violation” nor a pattern of abuse that would prevent renewal of the station’s license, the FCC indicated it would grant the license renewal application by separate action if no other issues arose.

Illinois High School Enters Into Consent Decree for Violations Relating to Periods of Silence, Late Issues/Programs Lists, and Failure to File a Biennial Ownership Report and EEO Program Report

An Illinois High School, the licensee of a noncommercial radio station, recently entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC for failing to (i) promptly notify the Commission that the station was silent for more than ten days, (ii) request Commission authorization to remain silent for more than 30 days, (iii) file required Biennial Ownership Reports, (iv) submit an EEO Program Report, and (v) timely upload its quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to its Public Inspection File throughout the license term.

Section 73.561(d) of the FCC’s Rules permits stations to limit or discontinue operation for a period of no more than 30 days, but requires licensees to notify the Commission no later than the 10th day of limited or discontinued operation. If the station needs to remain silent beyond 30 days, a licensee must request Special Temporary Authority (an “STA”) from the FCC to do so. In this case, the station discontinued operations on June 1, 2019 but did not notify the FCC until September 24, 2019, when it sought an STA.

The FCC granted the STA request on October 10, 2019 for a period of no longer than 180 days. The licensee requested an STA extension on March 10, 2020 which was granted on March 17, 2020 for a period ending June 1, 2020.  Citing reasons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the licensee filed a final extension request on June 1, 2020 which the FCC granted on July 15, 2020 for a period ending December 1, 2020. During this time, the licensee filed the station’s license renewal application on August 3, 2020. The station resumed operations on November 14, 2020.

In October 2020, an informal complaint was filed against the license renewal application, arguing that the station was silent for longer than 12 months and that granting the application would be unfair to other high school stations in the region. The complaint also pointed out that the application falsely certified that the station had not been silent for any consecutive 12-month period.  Section 312(g) of the Communications Act states that a license shall automatically expire if a broadcast station “fails to transmit broadcast signals for any consecutive 12-month period.”

In response, the FCC noted its discretion under Section 312(g) to extend or reinstate a license “to promote equity and fairness.” The FCC also noted that the station did resume operations on November 14 – prior to the STA expiring on December 1. The Commission agreed that the licensee incorrectly certified compliance with Section 312(g), but indicated it did not believe the licensee’s incorrect certification was intentionally false, as the station had an STA allowing it to remain silent. However, the FCC did conclude that the licensee violated Section 73.3615(d) (failing to file required Biennial Ownership Reports), Section 73.2080(f)(1) (failing to submit an EEO Program Report with the license renewal application), and Section 73.3527(b)(2)(i) (failing to timely upload Issues/Programs Lists to the Public Inspection File).

In light of the Commission’s findings, the licensee elected to enter into a Consent Decree with the FCC to resolve the matter rather than face an extended FCC proceeding. Pursuant to the Consent Decree, the licensee admitted the violations and agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1,000. The Consent Decree also requires the licensee to file an EEO Program Report within 10 days, and implement a compliance program, including appointment of a compliance officer, development of a compliance manual, implementation of a training program, filing of a compliance report with the FCC a year after entering into the Decree, and reporting to the FCC any violation of the Consent Decree, the Silent Notification Rule, the Ownership Report Rule, the EEO Program Report Rule, or the Public Inspection File Rule within 10 days of discovering a violation.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement ~ December 2021.

Published on:

As the trades have reported, a rather unusual spot appearing to be a FOX NFL promo aired during yesterday’s NFL pre-game show.  What made it particularly unusual was that it included an EAS-like tone, and had a URL at the bottom of the screen for “WWW.FOXNFLEMERGENCYALERT.COM.”  That URL currently links to a “Let’s Go Brandon” website that I don’t encourage you to visit because our own spam software blocks access to it on the stated grounds of “Risky-Sites.”

We’ve written about the regulatory risks of transmitting false EAS alert tones on multiple occasions (see here, here and here), with the most recent post being about a proposed $272,000 fine against CBS for an EAS tone that was briefly heard in an episode of Young Sheldon.  The principal issue in such circumstances is Section 11.45(a) 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; or as specified in §§ 10.520(d), 11.46, and 11.61 of this chapter.

In this case, since it was a live broadcast, it would be difficult for an affiliate to move quickly enough to spot and delete the tone before it aired.  Recognizing that this is often the case, the FCC has typically focused inquiries involving network programming on the network’s owned and operated stations rather than on the network’s affiliates.  However, that isn’t always the case, as the FCC has fined individual stations for Children’s Television rule violations even where those violations occurred in network programming.

So an affiliate’s natural reaction in such circumstances might be to lay low and let the network deal with any potential ramifications at the FCC.  However, that isn’t an option, as Section 11.45(b) of the FCC’s Rules states that:

No later than twenty-four (24) hours of an EAS Participant’s discovery (i.e., actual knowledge) that it has transmitted or otherwise sent a false alert to the public, the EAS Participant shall send an email to the Commission at the FCC Ops Center at FCCOPS@fcc.gov, informing the Commission of the event and of any details that the EAS Participant may have concerning the event.

That means remaining silent and hoping it all blows over isn’t an option once an affiliate becomes aware that it has transmitted a false EAS tone.  Section 11.45(b) requires stations to basically hold up their hand and volunteer to the FCC that they aired the tone, and the 24-hour time limit doesn’t give a station much time to contemplate it.  While the FCC and FOX will hopefully resolve any issues with the broadcast itself, stations don’t want to dodge that bullet only to expose themselves to an FCC claim that they failed to promptly report the incident.

Published on:

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:

  • Broadcasters Fined for Late-Filed Issues/Programs Lists
  • Cable Sports Network Receives Proposed Fine of $20,000 for EAS Violation
  • FCC Enters Consent Decrees with Wireless Providers for Engaging in Prohibited Communications During Spectrum Auction

Continue reading →

Published on:

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:

  • Rhode Island LPFM Station Issued $15,000 Fine for Underwriting Violations
  • In Reversal, FCC Rescinds Grant of Construction Permit for Portland FM Translator Over Interference Concerns
  • Unauthorized Operations and EAS Violation Result in Proposed $25,000 Fine for Florida LPFM Station

 Rhode Island LPFM Station’s Underwriting Violations Cost $15,000

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a Rhode Island low power FM (LPFM) station to resolve an investigation into violations of the FCC’s underwriting laws and other rules governing the ownership of LPFM stations.

The underwriting laws aim to preserve the unique nature of the commercial-free, local programming LPFM stations provide to the public, and in turn these stations benefit from access to spectrum and fewer regulatory requirements.  To accomplish this, Section 399B of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting promotional announcements on behalf of for-profit entities in exchange for compensation.  The FCC’s rules also place ownership restrictions on LPFM stations, prohibiting (1) a party from holding an attributable interest in another broadcast station; (2) a transfer of control of an LPFM station without first obtaining FCC approval; and (3) a transfer or assignment of an LPFM license within three years from the date of issue.

Between May 2016 and January 2020, the FCC received a series of complaints concerning announcements broadcast by the station.  Specifically, the complaints alleged that the station had broadcast commercial advertisements, and questioned the station’s compliance with the ownership limitations for LPFM stations.  The Enforcement Bureau followed up by issuing multiple letters of inquiry to the broadcaster seeking information regarding the underwriting practices and ownership structure of the station.  In response, the broadcaster admitted that, over a 16-month period, it received compensation for at least 17 announcements aired on behalf of for-profit entities.  The station also acknowledged that one of its board members held an attributable interest in another radio station, and that a transfer of control effectuating a complete change in board membership took place on March 21, 2016, roughly one year after the FCC issued the station license, and without prior FCC approval.  In fact, the required FCC transfer application was not filed until March 14, 2019.

To resolve the investigation, the license holder entered into a Consent Decree with the Enforcement Bureau under which it must pay a $15,000 civil penalty and implement a five-year compliance plan to prevent future violations.

Upon Further Review: FCC Rescinds Oregon FM Translator Construction Permit Grant Over Predicted Interference

In a recent Memorandum Opinion and Order, the FCC reversed the prior grant of a construction permit to the licensee of a Portland, Oregon FM translator station due to concerns over predicted interference to listeners of a local radio station.

Under Section 74.1204(f) of the FCC’s Rules, the Commission will reject applications for FM translator stations if the proposed operation would cause interference to an existing broadcast station.  To prove such interference, a station opposing grant of such an application must provide “convincing evidence” of the impact of the proposed operation on its listeners.  This evidence includes the name and address of affected listeners, certifications or similar evidence from those listeners that they listen to the existing radio station at their address, evidence that such listener’s address is within the 60 dBu contour of the proposed FM translator, and evidence demonstrating that grant of the authorization will result in interference to the listener’s reception of the existing station at that address.  Additionally, the FCC’s rules (which have since been amended to require online public notices) required at the time that applicants seeking authorization to construct an FM translator station publish public notice of the application in the local newspaper to provide the public with an opportunity to participate in the proceeding.

Continue reading →

Published on:

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:

  • Radio Skit Gone Wrong Draws $20,000 Proposed Fine for False Emergency Alert
  • Wireless Microphones Operating on Unauthorized Frequencies Generate Hefty Proposed Fine
  • FCC Issues Citation to Convenience Store Over Errant Surveillance Equipment

No Laughing Matter: Emergency Alert Parody Leads to Proposed $20,000 Fine Against New York FM Station

The FCC recently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture proposing a $20,000 fine against a New York radio station for airing a false emergency alert.  As we have written in the past, the FCC strictly enforces its rules against airing false Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tones, arguing that false alerts undermine public confidence in the alert system.

The EAS system is a public warning system utilizing broadcast stations, cable systems, satellite providers, and other video programming systems to permit the President to rapidly communicate with the public during an emergency.  Federal, state and local authorities also use the EAS system to deliver localized emergency information.  The FCC’s rules expressly forbid airing EAS codes, the EAS Attention Signal (the jarring long beep), or a recording or simulation of these tones in any circumstance other than in an actual emergency, during an authorized test, or as part of an authorized public service announcement.  Besides desensitizing the public to alerts in cases of real emergencies, the data embedded in the codes can trigger false activations of emergency alerts on other stations.

On October 3, 2018, FEMA, in coordination with the FCC, conducted a nationwide test of the EAS and Wireless Emergency Alert (“WEA”) systems.  Shortly afterwards, the FCC received a complaint that a New York FM station transmitted an EAS tone during an on-air skit lampooning the scheduled test.  The FCC issued a Letter of Inquiry to the station, demanding a recording of the program and sworn statements regarding whether the tone was, in fact, improperly transmitted.

In response, the station confirmed that it aired the EAS Attention Signal as part of a skit produced by a station employee.  When reviewing the skit before airing, the station spotted an improper EAS header code in it, and told the employee to delete it.  However, the employee merely replaced the header code with a one-second portion of the EAS Attention Signal.  The station then approved and aired the program.

In response, the FCC found that the segment violated its rules, noting that the “use of the Attention Signal in a parody of the first nationwide test of the EAS and WEA is specifically the type of behavior section 11.45 seeks to prevent.”  The FCC also noted that the brief duration of the tone aired was not a defense to a finding of violation.

As a result, the FCC proposed a $20,000 fine.  Although the base fine for airing a false EAS alert is $8,000, the FCC concluded that the circumstances surrounding this case warranted an upward adjustment.  In particular, the FCC stressed the gravity of the situation, noting that the broadcaster aired the false alert on one of the highest-ranking stations in New York City, which itself is the nation’s largest radio market.  Given these facts, the FCC proposed a $20,000 fine.  The station has thirty days to either pay the fine, or present evidence to the FCC justifying reduction or cancellation of it.

A Broad Spectrum of Violations Creates Problems for Wireless Microphone Retailer

In a recently-issued Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, the FCC proposed a $685,338 fine against a seller of wireless microphones, asserting that the retailer advertised 32 models of noncompliant wireless microphones.

The FCC allocates radiofrequency spectrum for specific uses, with particular attention given to the potential for harmful interference to other users.  The FCC has made certain bands available for use by wireless microphones, with technical rules varying depending on the particular band used.  For manufacturers and retailers, this means their devices must be designed to operate only within the permitted frequency bands.

Under Section 302(b) of the Communications Act, “[n]o person shall manufacture, import, sell, offer for sale, or ship devices or home electronic equipment and systems, or use devices, which fail to comply with regulations promulgated pursuant to [FCC Rules]”.  Section 74.851(f) of the FCC’s Rules requires devices that emit radiofrequency energy (like wireless microphones) to be approved in accordance with the FCC’s certification procedures before being marketed and sold in the United States.  Such devices are also subject to identification and labeling requirements. Continue reading →

Published on:

Earlier today, the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture against CBS for false EAS alerting, which is FCC-speak for “CBS, tell us why we shouldn’t fine you $272,000 for airing a fake EAS alert tone.”  We’ve written on a number of occasions about FCC fines for airing false EAS alert tones (see, for example, here, here and here).  We’ve also written about false EAS alerts that were unintentionally aired, with my personal favorite in that category being EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality.  However, fines for airing false EAS tones have become sufficiently common in recent years that we have largely stopped writing about them.

Today’s decision was a bit different, however.  Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules provides 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….” False EAS alerts have typically popped up in commercials as a way of getting jaded viewers’ and listeners’ attention, which makes them challenging to successfully defend.  After all, the advertiser in that scenario is typically counting on the alert tone to draw attention to the ad for reasons entirely unconnected to public safety.  While the advertiser might claim that this prohibition violates its First Amendment rights, that’s not likely a winning argument since commercial speech receives reduced First Amendment protection (which is why, for example, the Federal Trade Commission can prohibit false advertising).

But what happens when the use of the alert tone is not in an ad?  In the case of CBS, the FCC succinctly describes the offending content (which you can also view here) as:

CBS admits that it transmitted the program Young Sheldon on April 12, 2018, which included a “tornado warning sound effect integral to a story line about a family’s visceral reaction to a life‐threatening emergency and how surviving a tornado changed family relationships.”

While the FCC acknowledged that CBS made efforts to ensure the tone was a simulation that did not trigger EAS equipment, the FCC noted that Section 11.45 still prohibits simulations of an EAS tone.  Among other defenses CBS raised in response to the FCC’s assertion that the broadcast violated Section 11.45, it argued that no viewer would be so confused as to think it was a real emergency, and that the broadcast is protected by the First Amendment to boot.  That’s where this case gets interesting.

The FCC is effectively claiming that CBS falsely yelled “fire” in a crowded theater, which is the well-established exception to First Amendment protections.  CBS, on the other hand, is countering that it only yelled “boogeyman”, and that any reasonable viewer isn’t going to panic, because the public knows the difference between real and fictional things.

For students of the First Amendment, the part that first catches the eye is the absolutism of the Commission’s decision.  Only very rarely does the First Amendment permit blanket bans on particular speech in all circumstances.  While you may be prosecuted for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, you can, for example, say it if you are in command of a firing squad.

The FCC’s treatment of the EAS tone as sacrosanct admittedly makes it difficult for a drama to realistically depict an emergency and people’s reaction to it.  Whenever a particular type of content is forbidden in all circumstances except where the government specifically authorizes it, First Amendment issues inevitably arise.

In today’s decision, the FCC presented three reasons to justify the blanket prohibition.  These would be to “(1) prevent consumer confusion at the moment of a broadcast of the Tones, (2) prevent the inadvertent technical triggering of additional EAS warnings, and (3) prevent the accretion of non-emergency uses of the Tones that will dull consumers’ attentiveness to the public-safety import of the sounds.”  While the FCC had to concede that CBS’s efforts to modify the tone had been successful in preventing the triggering of additional EAS warnings, it was not convinced that consumer confusion could not have occurred, and was certainly concerned about the public getting alert fatigue.

But it’s not really the fact that the FCC rejected CBS’s arguments that is of interest to broadcasters, but how it was done.  First, the Commission noted the now archaic (but admittedly not yet overruled) court precedent that content on broadcast stations receives a lower level of First Amendment protection than all other media.  Whether that still makes sense in the modern era, the FCC’s argument creates the very real possibility that false EAS alert tones could be forbidden on broadcast TV, where the legal standard of First Amendment review is “intermediate scrutiny”, but be constitutionally protected on cable TV, where restrictions on content must meet the far tighter “strict scrutiny” standard.  Since EAS alerts are also transmitted by cable systems, however, the risk of public confusion and alert fatigue is the same on cable as it is on broadcast TV.  That raises the question of how strong the government’s interest in prohibiting false EAS alert tone simulations on broadcast TV can be if those same false alert tones might be constitutionally protected on cable TV programs.

Seeing that trap, the FCC tried to avoid it by arguing that even though First Amendment protections are reduced for CBS as a broadcaster, it doesn’t matter, because the government’s interest in preventing public confusion and alert fatigue is so compelling as to survive strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, allowing the rule to also be enforced against cable TV providers.

Public safety can certainly be a compelling government interest.  However, to survive strict scrutiny, a regulation must also be “narrowly tailored” to further the government’s compelling interest, and be the “least restrictive means” for doing so.  A blanket government ban on using even a simulation of the EAS tone would probably have a tough time surviving strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, but if the FCC could argue to a court that there is something uniquely valuable about the public hearing the tone only when there is an actual emergency, a court might well agree.

But that’s where the FCC may have undercut its own argument.  In July 2018, the FCC modified its rules to allow the airing of “the EAS Attention Signal and a simulation of the EAS codes as provided by FEMA” where they are used in EAS Public Service Announcements provided by “federal, state, and local government entities or non-governmental organizations, to raise public awareness about emergency alerting.”  To avoid confusion, such messages must state that the tone is being presented in the context of a PSA for the purpose of educating the public about EAS.

It would be challenging for the FCC to successfully argue in court that a single use of a simulated EAS tone creates listener fatigue when it has just authorized unlimited use of the actual tone in PSAs.  Similarly, the FCC weakened its argument that any non-emergency use of the tone inevitably leads to public confusion, when, by requiring the PSAs to contain a disclaimer letting the public know it is not an emergency, the FCC concedes that it is possible to present the tone (or a simulation thereof) in a manner that does not confuse the public.

That would seem to make it a a finding of fact as to whether a particular use of a simulated tone is likely to cause public confusion versus public education, and to be candid, a dramatic representation of a family reacting to an EAS tone probably conveys the importance of the tone far better than a PSA that most viewers will fast-forward past (or miss while getting a sandwich).  Admittedly, that is a slippery slope, but First Amendment analysis perpetually lives on that slope.

Regardless of how a court might balance these competing interests, the real irony of the whole affair is that Young Sheldon is set in Texas circa 1989-90.  The Emergency Alert System was not activated until 1997, meaning that a realistic portrayal of a tornado watch in 1990 would have featured the much different twin-frequency monotone Attention Signal of the earlier Emergency Broadcast System.  What’s the irony, you say?  The FCC’s restrictions on using the EBS tone outside of an emergency were eliminated twenty years ago.  Young Sheldon could have been both historically accurate and FCC-compliant had it just used the EBS tone instead.

Published on:

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 →

Published on:

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:

  • Investigation Into Undisclosed Radio Station Owner With a History of Felonies Leads to Hearing Designation Order
  • FCC Settles With Alaskan Broadcaster After Disastrous Station Inspection
  • FCC Reinstates Licenses for Tennessee and Alabama Radio Stations, Then Immediately Threatens to Revoke Them

Continue reading →

Published on:

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) formally notified the FCC that FEMA has scheduled the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) for August 7, 2019 at 2:20 p.m. FEMA states that this year’s test will differ from the nationwide tests that have been conducted over the past several years in that it will be issued through the National Public Warning System, composed of FEMA-designated Primary Entry Point facilities, to test the readiness of the EAS to function in the absence of Internet connectivity.

Continue reading →