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.