When was there ever a year where there was more controversy about contests and promotions? This week, the stories were everywhere about how Boston was shut down by the promotion for a program on the Cartoon Network. While all the facts are not in on that case, had this been conducted by a broadcaster, the FCC might well be investigating to determine if the promotion violates the Commission’s hoax policies, which prohibit the airing of hoaxes that endanger the public by tying up emergency responders.
The FCC already seems to be investigating the contest gone wrong in Sacramento. According to trade press reports, FCC Chairman Martin asked the Enforcement Branch of the FCC to review the contest that resulted in the death of a participant. While the FCC may investigate any matter, what is it that they are looking for in connection with the Sacramento contest? Certainly, the contest was a tragic event. And there is the possibility of civil liability from the lawsuit that was filed last week. But not every action by a broadcaster can or should be the subject of FCC action. The FCC has never become involved in libel or slander cases, leaving them to the jurisdiction of the civil courts. Nor has the FCC become involved in cases of personal or property damage from accidents or injuries caused by broadcast vehicles or other equipment. Again – those matters are left to the Courts.
While the FCC has the ability to punish stations for not acting in the public interest, that power is usually reserved for situations where a station violates one of the specific rules or policies the Commission has set out. It is hard to see what specific policy the Sacramento station violated – but we will see what the Enforcement Bureau does with this case. Sometimes egregious cases make the FCC take actions that they otherwise would not consider.
One of the FCC policies for which a station can be punished requires that a station honor all the rules that it sets out for the contest. In one pending case, we may find that out whether the rules prohibited the award of a prize to someone who was not a citizen of the United States, as an illegal alien is claiming rights to a prize that the station allegedly refused to award to her when they discovered her illegal status.
All in all, these cases make clear the need for careful planning and execution of any contest. To the extent possible, the rules should address any possible outcome. Who is eligible to win the contest? What happens if the prize becomes unavailable? What happens if somehow two people do whatever is necessary to win the contest?
Then the execution must be carried out in strict compliance with the rules, and in a manner that is safe. Think out the possible ramifications of the contest itself, and the lengths to which people may go to win that contest (remember Domino’s dropped the pizza delivery guarantee because of fears of liability for delivery persons rushing to beat the deadline – will people rush to meet a time deadline that you set?). Planning and execution avoid liability.
And certainly avoid the contests that Steven Colbert suggested in this clip from a recent Colbert Report.