ESPN, NBC, and Viacom Face $1.9 Million Fines for ‘Olympus Has Fallen’

The FCC is penalizing the channels for airing a trailer that featured the emergency-alert sound.

Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler attend the UK Premiere of 'Olympus Has Fallen' at BFI IMAX on April 3, 2013 in London, England.
National Journal
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Laura Ryan
March 3, 2014, 10:29 a.m.

Vi­ac­om, ES­PN, and NB­CUni­ver­sal could pay a high price for air­ing a trail­er that used an emer­gency-alert sound in a pro­mo­tion for a film about a ter­ror­ist at­tack on the White House.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion slapped $1.9 mil­lion in fines on the three cable net­works Monday for air­ing a pro­mo­tion for the film Olym­pus Has Fallen star­ring Mor­gan Free­man, Aaron Eck­hart, and Ger­ard But­ler — the largest fine yet in an on­go­ing series of in­vest­ig­a­tions on the mis­use of the Emer­gency Alert Sys­tem sig­nal.

The trail­er, which aired last March, opens with the emer­gency-alert alarm fol­lowed by a man say­ing, “The most pro­tec­ted build­ing on earth has fallen,” along with im­ages of Wash­ing­ton’s land­marks un­der at­tack and text read­ing “THIS IS NOT A TEST” and “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Cable chan­nels are pro­hib­ited by fed­er­al law from air­ing con­tent that use the ac­tu­al or sim­u­lated emer­gency-alert sig­nal, ex­cept dur­ing an emer­gency or an au­thor­ized test. Au­thor­it­ies use the sys­tem to alert the pub­lic about floods, tor­nadoes, miss­ing chil­dren, and oth­er emer­gen­cies.

The FCC began in­vest­ig­at­ing the three net­works after re­ceiv­ing nu­mer­ous com­plaints from con­sumers who found the com­mer­cial “mis­lead­ing” and “po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous.”

One com­plaint said the com­mer­cial “had our en­tire fam­ily run­ning to the TV to find out what was go­ing on, only to find it was a com­mer­cial…. It could be dev­ast­at­ing if people learn to ig­nore the EAS tones, and, of course, it is hardly fair to trick people in­to run­ning to the tele­vi­sion to watch your com­mer­cial.”

The three cable net­works said they aired the pro­mo­tion mul­tiple times on their chan­nels, and that the ac­tu­al EAS code and sig­nal was used in the ad­vert­ise­ment, but they ques­tion their li­ab­il­ity un­der the com­mis­sion’s rules.

The trail­er was dis­trib­uted by Ho­ri­zon Me­dia and Film­Dis­trict Dis­tri­bu­tion, but net­works are re­spons­ible for en­sur­ing that everything they air com­plies with FCC rules.

Vi­ac­om faces a $1.12 mil­lion fine, while ES­PN must pay $280,000, and NB­CUni­ver­sal $530,000. Vi­ac­om and ES­PN told the FCC they mod­i­fied their ad­vert­ising guidelines to pre­vent ads us­ing the EAS sound from air­ing in the fu­ture.

The FCC re­ports a spike in con­sumer com­plaints against cable net­works for us­ing emer­gency-alert sounds. In Janu­ary, the FCC slapped a $200,000 fee on Turn­er Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem for air­ing an ad­vert­ise­ment for rap­per A$AP Rocky that mim­icked an emer­gency-alert sound.


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