Emergency Alert System’s integrity saved from bad movie

About the only time you hear the test tones for an emergency is the once-a-month test of the Emergency Alert System, formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System, which requires radio and TV stations to drop what they’re doing in the event of a national emergency and turn their channels over to the president.

In theory, it’s serious business, although there’s a fair number of people who think it’s part of the “security show,” to make the public believe there’s an organized method of disseminating information in the event of a national emergency.

Back in the day of our small-market broadcasting careers, we wondered who in their right mind would stay at our post at a radio station when the nukes were about to rain down on us.

It’s also not a particularly secure system. Last year, someone hacked into it to issue a warning that the zombie apocalypse was upon us. People shrugged, and moved on.

The FCC, however, still takes this seriously. Today, it lowered the boom on ESPN, Viacom’s The Comedy Channel, and NBC Universal for broadcasting this:

Hands up, everyone who thought it was an actual emergency!

The FCC today announced a total of $2 million in fines against broadcasters who aired the commercial last year,the Wall St. Journal reports.

In its notice today the FCC notes “no person within the jurisdiction of the United States shall knowingly utter or transmit, or cause to be uttered or transmitted, any false or fraudulent signal of distress, or communication relating thereto.”

The companies argue that they shouldn’t be subject to a fine, because they’re not members of the Emergency Alert System to begin with. They noted that the use of the tones did not spark other braodcasters to automatically fire their own alerts (the EAS is basically a “daisy chain” of higher level broadcasters automatically firing the emergency alerts at smaller stations).

The FCC was unimpressed:

The text of the rule does not provide or suggest that having intent to deceive is required, nor does it excuse “dramatic” uses; rather the rule provides that transmission of these emergency sounds or simulations thereof is simply prohibited in “any circumstance” except when an actual emergency or authorized test warrants their use.

The companies also argued — and I’m paraphrasing here — that nobody in their right mind would mistake the movie trailer for an actual emergency.

Again, the FCC isn’t buying the argument, because someone did:

We note, moreover, that in each of the complaints about the No Surrender Trailer, the viewer specifically expresses concern that the EAS Tones did, in fact, create a false sense of emergency and had the potential to desensitize the public to the signal that could be life-saving in a real national, state or local area emergency. One complainant even noted that, upon hearing the EAS Tones embedded in the No Surrender Trailer, a family member rushed to exit his bathtub, thinking there was an emergency.

A Comcast spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on the proposed fine. ESPN and Viacom say they’ll change advertising guidelines and no longer allow ads that contain actual Emergency Alert signals.

  • Thomas Mercier

    I’m curious if someone actually considers this system that critical to protect it like this or if they thought “well we need to raise revenue somehow, why not fine them for this?”

    • Our connectivity is ridiculously exposed to interruption. It’s hard to imagine other than “my fellow Americans, all hell is about to break loose and you’re all on your own”, the system has much of a function. The grid, the cable, the cell system, the towers… they’ll all stay up for about 10 seconds.

      • Dave

        It depends what the emergency is. They use it for severe weather, don’t they?

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I side with the FCC.

  • MrE85

    This has a bit of a “War of the Worlds” radio vibe, no? I would have never fallen for it, but perhaps an someone paying less attention might.

  • Dave

    Perhaps the FCC should worry about important things like net neutrality. Course, that isn’t low-hanging fruit.

  • Joseph Kurland

    Anyone play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? There’s a chapter that starts with the tone and works to ratchet up the stress/suspense in an amazing way (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IP0aTY-Uuc starts at @ 0:00.18). I don’t think such a thing desensitizes. Furthermore, the tones on the trailer were modified and blended into a musical score. I’d argue artistic license and freedom of expression against this lawsuit. But I’m not a lawyer.