The FCC has recently staked out a policy that the any use of EAS tones, or tones that sound like those alerts, outside of a real emergency, will lead to big fines. Since the beginning of the year, the FCC has issued notices proposing fines totaling over $2.2 million against some of the biggest media companies in the country for such violations (see this decision proposing a $300,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System Inc. for tones mimicking the EAS alerts that were included in a commercial transmitted nationwide in cable network programming, and this decision imposing cumulative fines of over $1.9 million on 3 cable network programmers for transmitting ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that included portions of the EAS alert tones). Only days after the latter decision, a new warning about EAS tones or sound effects made to mimic those tones was sent out by the Southern California Broadcasters Association alerting broadcasters to a commercial for a charcoal briquettes company that seemingly contained such tones. Given the strict liability that the FCC has been imposing for such commercials, watch for this recent ad and any other programming that might contain EAS tones or anything that sounds like them – and keep them off the air.
With past warnings on this issue (see our article from November about another set of FCC fines for similar broadcasts, and the release of an FCC press release warning media companies about the issue) and the recent large fines imposed on major media companies – both broadcast and cable – it is clear that all media companies need to be on the alert to monitor their broadcast material for the any content sounding like EAS alerts, and advertisers and program producers need to be aware that anything they produce that contains the alert tones is likely to cause problems at the FCC. Note that these recent decisions imposed penalties on cable networks – so it is not just licensees who need to be vigilant. In these decisions, the FCC has rejected any arguments that the media companies that transmitted the advertising containing the alert tones should be excused from liability as they did not themselves produce the ads. So watch for these tones – even if they are packaged in someone else’s programming.
This is not the only EAS area that is costing broadcasters money. In recent weeks, the FCC has fined several stations thousands of dollars for not having operational EAS systems at their stations. While these fines are not the same order of magnitude as those issued in connection with the commercial messages that contained tones sounding like the EAS alerts, they can still be significant. It is the broadcaster’s responsibility to have an operating EAS system to conduct the required tests of the system, to monitor the system for the receipt of the required weekly tests, and to keep records of the tests in the station’s log. To the extent that tests are not received, a station must figure out what is wrong with its equipment, and repair it (noting any outage in its station logs and requesting FCC permission for station operations without EAS if those problems cannot be immediately repaired).
The recent FCC fines for noncompliance include one for $9000 for a station recently resumed operations after a long period of silence, but did not have any EAS equipment. Another $9000 fine was proposed for a TV station which had an EAS receiver at its studio location, but the tests were monitored and initiated at a remote location, where apparently proper records of the receipt of the tests were not maintained, and the records were not made available to the local operators of the station for production when the FCC inspected.
All in all, EAS is a hot button issue for the FCC, and is demonstrated by these recent cases, so any perceived noncompliance can bring significant fines. Carefully watch all of our operations to make sure that you give the FCC no reason to complain about your operations.