In three recent cases, the FCC revisited the issue of broadcast contest rules – fining stations for not following the rules that they set out for on-air contests, and reiterating that the full rules of any contest need to be aired on the station (see our previous post on this issue here). The most recent case also made clear that a broadcast station’s contests that may be primarily conducted on its web site are still subject to the FCC’s rules if any mention of the contest is made on the broadcast station. Thus, even though the contest itself may be conducted on the website, with entries being made there and prizes being first announced on the site, if the station uses its broadcast signal to direct people to the site to participate in the contest or otherwise promote it, the broadcaster must announce all of the rules on the air.
In one case, a listener called a station with what she believed to be the correct answer to a question that needed to be answered to win a prize. The listener gave the answer, only to be asked a second unexpected question that she did not answer correctly. The next day, she heard another listener call in, answer the original question in the same way that she did – and win the prize without ever even being asked the second question. When the first listener complained, station employees agreed that the second question was not part of the rules, but did nothing to correct their mistake until after the listener filed her complaint with the FCC. The Commission fined the station $4000 for failing to follow the contest rules and for failing to fully publicize all of the material terms of the contest on the air.
The second case was somewhat stranger – an on-air program host out of the blue promised to give away a million dollars to the 13th caller, and then said that the station would continue to give away a million dollars every hour. When a caller called to claim the million dollars, after being told that they were a winner and a prolonged period on hold, the station hung up on the caller. The station claimed that the promise of a million dollar give away was clearly a joke and should not have been taken seriously. Yet, from tapes of the program, it was clear that the listener was not the only one who believed that the give-away was real. Essentially, the FCC said that you don’t joke about giving away a million dollars unless you make it very clear that it is a joke. Where that wasn’t clear, a fine of $6000 was in order.
Finally, the Commission decided that a station which had conducted a contest primarily on its website, but which announced on the air of its broadcast station that you could enter the contest on-line, and which announced the winners on the air, was subject to the FCC’s jurisdiction for that contest. In the FCC’s view, the fact that it was promoted on the air, and that winners were announced on the station, was enough to make it a broadcast contest subject to all FCC contest rules – including the requirement that the rules be broadcast on-air. As the deadline for entry, and the time when prizes would be awarded were not made clear, a fine of $6000 was imposed.
Taken together, these cases demonstrate the importance of broadcasters following the contest rules that they develop, and publicizing on the air all of the material terms of any contest – including eligibility requirements, how the winner is selected, where to enter, deadlines for entry, when a winner will be selected, what the prize is, the value of the prize and how that was determined, what happens if the prize becomes unavailable, tie-breaking procedures, etc. – on the air frequently enough that a reasonable listener would have the opportunity to hear them. Then follow those rules carefully and resolve any issues quickly, or you are risking the FCC awarding you a big fine.