The FCC has upheld a fine issued to a radio station licensee for what it determined was a failure to disclose all the rules of a broadcast contest. The giveaway was of "the Ultimate Garage" and the FCC determined, in response to a complaint, that the station had failed to disclose all of the material rules of the contest on the air. In looking at the many issues cited by the Commission in support of the fine, some are ones that are similar to those in other cases that we’ve written about before, but some are ones that have not been disclosed in other recent FCC fines – including the requirement that stations broadcast the all of the material rules of the contest not just periodically throughout the course of the contest enough so that a reasonable listener will hear the rules, but also the material rules must be announced the first time that the contest is announced to the public.
The Commission found that the licensee here had not disclosed, in either the first announcement about the contest or in enough of the other broadcast announcements that the contest was a "winner take all" contest – where the Ultimate Garage would be awarded to only a single winner. The broadcaster had promoted the contest in both live-read announcements and in a variety of recorded announcements. While certain of the recorded announcements made clear that there was but one garage to be given away, many of the other recorded announcements and the live read announcements tended to refer listeners to the full contest rules on the website, where the rules mistakenly talked about the possibility multiple winners. But that was not the only issue that the FCC saw in the station’s disclosures.
The FCC also faulted the licensee for failing to disclose how the winner would be selected. The contest apparently entailed having all qualifiers show up at a final event, where the qualifiers would go through various winnowing methods until an ultimate winner was selected. This final event was several hours long. The FCC faulted the licensee for not disclosing this process to listeners who might have wanted to participate.
The failure to disclose the way that the value of the prizes was determined was also cited by the FCC as another reason that the contest did not meet the FCC’s criteria. Some of the announcements stated that the station would give away a Honda Accord, while others mentioned a Honda Civic – which was the car that was awarded. The Commission stated that the two cars were not of equal value, and no explanation was provided as to what happened to the Accord. The Civic that was awarded was also several years old – the fact that a used car was being awarded was never disclosed. Various other defects in the disclosures about the elements of the prize and their value were also allegedly omitted.
The FCC concluded by determining that harm to a listener is not necessary to sustain a complaint. In the FCC’s view, if the station violates the disclosure obligations, even if the complaining party can’t show that they have been harmed, the FCC can still fine the broadcaster.
So, as with so many other contest fines that we have written about in the past, any complaint seems to be enough to end up with a fine on the station – unless the station has been scrupulous in adhering to the rules that it has prepared for the contest, and has announced the material terms of the contest on the air sufficiently so that most listeners have heard those rules (and the licensee has kept the records of the announcements), a fine is likely. (See this post for information on what the material terms are, but note that the FCC, as in this case, seems to be finding that any confusing aspect of a contest may involve a "material term"). While there have been proposals to allow for more reliance on the station website as the repository of information about contests, such rules have not yet been adopted (or even put out for formal comments in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking). Until the rules are changed, and absent any significant change in the FCC’s enforcement policies, be very careful in conducting any on-air broadcast contests.