The FCC means business when it tells companies not to use the distinctive Emergency Alert System audio tones to grab audiences’ attention for entertainment — the way Viacom and ESPN did when they ran ads for FilmDistrict‘s 2013 thriller Olympus Has Fallen. The regulatory agency today rejected the companies’ claims that they shouldn’t be held responsible for fines it imposed last year, requiring Viacom to pay $1.12 million and ESPN to cough up $280,000.
Misuse of the warnings “creates a ‘Cry Wolf’ scenario, which risks desensitizing the public to the significance of the tones in a real emergency,” the FCC says in its Foreiture Order. Viacom aired the ads 108 times over five days on Spike, VH1, MTV, Comedy Central, MTV2, Centric, and BET. ESPN ran them 13 times over four days on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNEWS. That “violated the law and jeopardized the essential and exclusive function of the EAS — to immediately alert the public to an actual emergency.” (NBCUniversal also showed the ad 38 times, and paid its $530,000 fine.)
Viacom and ESPN told the FCC that they shouldn’t be held responsible because they weren’t notified that the movie trailer broke the rules. Viacom added that the ban on use of EAS tones “does not apply to intermediaries…which neither produced the Advertisement nor transmitted it directly to consumers.”
But the FCC says that the rule “applies broadly to ‘persons’ and does not exclude cable programmers.” It also applies to those who “transmit or cause to transmit” the tones, which gave the companies “unambiguous notice” that they could be held responsible. What’s more, Viacom’s ad guidelines tell buyers that it can review commercials before they run and reject them if needed “to ensure compliance” with laws and regulations.
Here’s the ad, if you’d like to judge for yourself: