Continuing its historical hard line on misuse of EAS tones, the FCC announced on May 30 that it had settled an investigation with WTLV, a TEGNA-owned television station in Jacksonville, Florida regarding unauthorized EAS tones appearing in an ad for the Jacksonville Jaguars (the local NFL team).  As part of the settlement, TEGNA entered into a Consent Decree in which it agreed to pay a $55,000 fine and to comply with various reporting conditions over the next few years. 

The Commission has long taken misuse of EAS tones very seriously, based largely on the theory that if the tones appear when there is in fact no emergency, it may create a “boy who cried wolf” scenario where viewers or listeners will ignore the tones when there is in fact an emergency.  In addition, false EAS tones may cause serious problems to the entire EAS system by triggering “downstream” stations in the system to automatically broadcast their own EAS alerts.  Depending on the formatting of the alerts, this can result in a very large number of false alerts or can even cause parts of the system to “lock up,” rendering stations unable to provide a genuine alert if necessary.  As a result, the Commission has made very clear to broadcasters and other programmers that they should under no circumstances use the EAS tones outside of genuine emergencies triggering the EAS system.

To deter violations, fines for misuse of EAS tones have been particularly steep.  In 2014 and 2015, for example, the FCC imposed almost $3 million in fines.  In 2014, three cable companies were fined almost $2 million for use of the tones in an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that ran more than 150 times across multiple networks.  In 2015, iHeart Communications had to pay $1 million for use of the tones in a syndicated broadcast.  That broadcast only used the tones once in a single airing, but it ran on 70 stations, which triggered EAS systems at some “downstream” stations, causing a “cascade” of false alerts.

In light of these past precedents, TEGNA may feel lucky to have gotten off with a fine of only $55,000, although its violations were almost certainly less egregious than those leading to seven-figure penalties.  According to the consent decree between TEGNA and the Commission, the ads at issue here opened with the EAS tones, along with sounds of a storm.  A voice-over then went on to say “This is an emergency broadcast transmission.  This is not a test.”  While the broadcast itself was clearly problematic, the Consent Decree reports that it aired only a total of four times, all on a single station, and did not cause any “downstream” issues.

In addition to the fine, the FCC also imposed a number of conditions.  These include: (1) designating a senior TEGNA corporate manager as a company-wide Compliance Officer who is responsible for developing and implementing a company-wide Compliance Plan to prevent any further violations of the EAS rules; and (2) imposing an 18 month obligation to report EAS violations at any TEGNA stations to the FCC; and (3) to file compliance reports.  After the first 18 months, those conditions will continue for an additional 18 months for WLTV itself, but not for the rest of TEGNA’s stations.  As has frequently been the case with reporting conditions in recent Commission consent decrees, these conditions will also apply to any purchaser who acquires the WLTV license during the covered period.

All broadcasters can take this Consent Decree as a useful reminder that the Commission takes its EAS rules, and in particular the broadcast of false EAS tones, very seriously.