The FCC has fined a Boston radio station $4000 for airing misleading announcements on the radio station as to the nature of the prize to be awarded in a station contest. In addition to an interesting set of facts in this case, the FCC’s decision also reviews several other recent decisions in explaining why it came to the decision it did as to the amount of the proposed fine.
In this case, the contest was promoted on the air as an opportunity to win a choice of three cars. The "Cool, Hot or Green" contest announcements never revealed on the air that the winner in fact did not receive the car, but instead only a two year lease on the car, and only if the winner passed a credit check. Nor did the on-air announcements mention that full contest rules were available on the station’s website. While the written rules on the website made clear that the prize was merely a lease of the car, as has been the case in many recent decisions (see our summaries here and here), the Commission faulted the licensee for not broadcasting an accurate disclosure of these rules on the air. While the licensee argued that this was but a minor ambiguity in the rules, the FCC, reviewing some recent decisions, disagreed.
In reaching this decision, the FCC looked at two recent cases in drawing a distinction between a case that deserved a fine, and one in which only an admonition was appropriate. The case that drew an admonition was one where a licensee had a contest where parties could try to win prizes during different music segments – telling listeners that they could "enter as often as you like." The complaining party interpreted that to mean that they could enter multiple times during a particular segment, when the station meant that they could play at as many different times as they wanted as long as it was in different segments. The FCC found this to be merely a matter of interpretation as to the meaning of the promotional phrase, and just admonished the station.
That was contrasted to another case that the FCC found to be more similar to the current case. In that case, the licensee announced that it was giving away tickets to the premiere of Spiderman, without disclosing that the tickets did not guarantee that there would be room in the theater for the winner. When the winner showed up and was denied access to the premier, the station gave him tickets to another movie, and tickets to a later showing of Spiderman. As the station did not deliver what was promised (tickets to the premier) and did not disclose on the air that the "ticket" did not guarantee entry to the theater, the FCC fined the station $4000. The Commission felt that this precedent was more akin to the current case, leading to the fine in today’s decision.
What this decision once again shows is the Commission’s insistence on stations providing clear rules for their contests, following those rules, and announcing all the material terms on the air in a clear and unambiguous way. As the cases make clear, it is difficult to tell whether a misleading contest promotion will lead to a fine or an admonition – neither of which a station wants on its record. If the material rules of a contest (which we summarized here), including the nature of the prize and any material limiting factors on the value or availability of the prize, are not clearly disclosed in on-air announcements, and the FCC gets a complaint, a fine like that imposed here may very well result.