FCC fines for violations of the FCC rules dealing with contests have been common in the last few years. Because of these fines, we recently conducted a webinar for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, discussing the requirements of FCC rule Section 73.1216 which regulates the conduct of station-sponsored contests. We also discussed what should be addressed
In recent years, the FCC has been to aggressively enforcing a policy requiring broadcasters to announce all material rules of a contest on the air enough times for a reasonable listener to hear the announcements. This past week, there was yet another case where this policy was enforced, resulting in a $4000 fine to a broadcaster. While the FCC continues to enforce this policy, at least one broadcaster has reportedly decided that a fine for not having broadcast of the material rules of a contest is not justified, and is apparently ready to take the FCC on in Court in a case where the FCC tries to enforce a fine issued several years ago.
The newest fine involved a station in Cleveland, which ran a contest called "Who Said That" where a clip of the voice of a sports figure was played on the air. The first person to be able to identify the speaker won a prize. Apparently, if no prize was awarded, a new prize was added each week until the voice was identified, when the winner would get all of the accumulated prizes. In this case, the station ran an announcement about the rules regularly until the station aired a clip that was not identified for some time. As the clip remained unidentified over the course of many weeks, and then many months, the station apparently became less rigorous about announcing the rules. But, more importantly to the FCC, the station did not announce on the air all of the prizes that had accumulated, nor did it announce that some of the prizes had become unavailable and had been replaced over time by prizes of what the station considered to be of an equivalent value. As the station had not announced the "extent, nature and value of the prizes," the FCC found the station to be in violation – even though the right to substitute prizes of equal value was contained in the written rules published by the station.
In another sign of just how closely the FCC monitors contests conducted by broadcast stations, the FCC this week issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (a notice of a fine of $4000) to Nassau Broadcasting for being imprecise in the wording of the contest rules for a contest to be held at one of its stations. In the rules of the contest, the station stated that entries would be accepted "through June 13, 2008." In fact, the contest was conducted on the evening of June 12, and the station cut off entries to the contest on June 12. When a listener went to enter the contest on June 13, and was told that she could not enter as the prize had already been awarded, the listener filed a complaint at the FCC. The FCC, reading the language "through June 13" to mean that listeners could enter the contest up to and including that day, fined the licensee $4000 for misleading its listeners as to the proper rules for the contest it conducted. This is another indication of just how seriously the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is taking the enforcement of Section 73.1216 of the Commission’s rules, which requires licensees "to fully and accurately disclose the material terms" of any contests that it conducts, and to "conduct the contest substantially as announced or advertised." Broadcasters need to be very precise in their wording of contest rules, and make sure that they carefully observe the details of the rules that they adopt.
In this case, it seems likely that the licensee was simply imprecise in its wording – stating that entries would be taken "through June 13" when it meant "before June 13." This would have seemed evident from the fact that the rules said that the winner would be announced on the morning show on June 13. Clearly, if the winner was going to be announced on the morning of June 13, it wouldn’t do much good entering after that time. But the ambiguity in the rules is construed by the FCC against the party who prepared the rules – as is evident from the finding in this case that these rules did not fully and accurately describe the rules of the contest (and actually holding the contest on the night of the 12th instead of the morning of the 13th probably didn’t help much). So what should a broadcaster do to make sure that this kind of ambiguity does not hit them in one of their contests?