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
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.”

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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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