Attention to detail de rigueur when it comes to contests

A Maryland FM station jumped the gun on its own contest back in June, 2008 – and it looks like it’s going to cost the licensee $4,000, according to the Enforcement Bureau.

The station’s heart was obviously in the right place. It invited listeners to send in photos of their dads, with one entry ultimately to be chosen for the grand prize just in time for Father’s Day. The “official rules” and on-air promos provided that the contest would run “through June 13” (which happened to be the Friday before Father’s Day in 2008). But the rules also provided that the winner would be selected on June 13, and promos for the contest indicated that each daily drawing would be announced at 7:20 a.m. So while the “through” language suggested that entries could be submitted all day long (possibly even up until 11:59 p.m., at least as a technical matter), the fact that a drawing was to be conducted on June 13 gave the contrary impression that the cut-off might be earlier in the day than that – and the fact that daily winners were to be announced at 0-dark-30 indicated that the cut-off time would logically have to be no later than 0-dark-29. 

So when was the real deadline on June 13?

An interesting semantic conundrum, to be sure, but not one that the FCC needed to worry about. That’s because the station conducted the final drawing on June 12.

The Commission’s rule on “licensee-conducted contests” (that would be 47 C.F.R. §73.1216) is very straightforward. It requires, first, that licensees “fully and accurately” disclose all “material terms” of their contests in on-air announcements, promos, advertisements about the contest, and second, that licensees then conduct their contests “substantially as announced or advertised”.

The Maryland FM station’s case was thus a no-brainer. Listeners had been given repeated indications that they could enter the contest at least sometime on June 13 and still be eligible to win. But that was clearly wrong if the final drawing was held on June 12. In other words, the contest was not conducted “substantially as announced”. And sure enough, a would-be contestant tried to enter after 7:20 a.m. on June 13, was told that the winner had been picked the day before, and was immediately transmogrified from “would-be contestant” to “disgruntled complainant”.

That’ll be $4,000, please – make your check payable to the FCC. Thanks for your business.

This case is a routine reminder of a simple but important point. If a licensee is going to conduct contests, it should plan them out, implement them, and document them carefully, with an eye to complete and accurate disclosure of all “material terms” and implementation of all contests consistently with the announced rules. That planning must include attention to each and every seemingly mundane detail. For example, a little more attention to the practical question of exactly when the final drawing would be conducted – and, therefore, when the last eligible entry would be accepted – would presumably have alerted the Maryland station that promoting the contest as running “through June 13” would be a mistake.

This is particularly important because, by their very nature, contests give rise to (a) a limited universe of “winners” and (b) a substantially greater universe of “losers”. And disappointed losers are likely to direct their disappointment to the station – especially if they have reason to believe that the contest was not conducted as represented. In other words, when a station runs a contest, it’s creating an army of potential complainants. And, as the case described above demonstrates, it takes only one complainant to get the FCC to punch your $4,000 one-way ticket to Forfeitureville. That should be motivation enough to dot all those I’s and cross all those T’s when it comes to conducting a contest.