And you thought that a contest on your website couldn’t get you in trouble with the FCC? No such luck – you’ve got at least one more think coming!

As it turns out, while the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadcasters is generally limited to their over-the-air activities, a contest on a website that does not toe the line with FCC disclosure requirements for on-air contests can still raise the FCC’s ire IF on-air announcements allude to the contest and IF the station somehow ties the website to listening to the station in some way. Who knew? In a recent decision out of the Enforcement Bureau, a Los Angeles FM licensee found out the hard way.

The station, KOST, set up a website which included contests open to members of its “KOST Rewards Program”. To become a member (and therefore eligible to participate in the contests), you had to register on the site. You would then “earn points” by, among other things, going onto the Rewards Program site and identifying songs which had been broadcast on the station at particular times (not that anyone would want to stimulate listening or anything like that). Using the points you earn, you could then buy “raffle tickets” with which you can enter website contests.

The overall Rewards Program was, of course, heavily promoted on the air. While the licensee appears to have tried to avoid “substantive” promotion of any website contests, the promos did occasionally refer to them – including, for example, an on-air mention that listeners could enter on the station’s website to win tickets to Les Miserables. And the promos of course encouraged members to listen, listen, listen to the station. (Example: “[B]ecome a member of our new KOST Rewards Program” and “earn Rewards Points just by listening”.)

The web page said that contestants could register for the Les Miz tix from May 29 to June 2 (all this happened in 2006), but the website did not disclose how many tickets would be given away or when winning names would be drawn.  While the contest was not supposed to close until 8:50 p.m. on June 2, the station drew winning names twice earlier that day and announced them on the air.  One more drawing was held after closing time.  So in the end, those who entered early had three chances to win, while those who entered late on the final day had only one chance. A disgruntled losing contestant, noticing the seeming unfairness, complained to the Commission, which asked the licensee to explain itself.

The station said that the contest was conducted exclusively on the website, so please, FCC, stop bothering us.  The FCC said nay nay, you promoted the contest over the air, and you made listeners tune in to get the benefits from the website. That was enough to invoke the FCC Rule Section 73.1216, requiring full disclosure of the prizes, timing of events, and opportunities to win.  The station is now being directed to drop $6,000 to the U.S. Treasury pot as penance for its lapse.

So even though the licensee really tried to keep the contest a strictly on-line, website-based activity – and therefore unaffected by Section 73.1216 (which the Commission’s own rule acknowledges “does not apply to licensee-conducted contests that are not broadcast or advertised to the public”) – the Commission appears to view even the slightest on-air reference to the contest to have brought that rule into play. Promotion Departments everywhere – beware.