Fake emergency alert in movie ad draws fines for US media firms

WASHINGTON, March 3 Mon Mar 3, 2014 2:34pm EST

WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - A U.S. advertisement for a movie that sounded like an emergency alert has drawn fines of $1.9 million for media companies Viacom Inc and Comcast Corp's NBCUniversal and ESPN, co-controlled by Walt Disney Co. after viewer complaints.

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday said it found the three companies "apparently willfully and repeatedly violated" the rules that prohibit the use of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) sounds for purposes other than to warn viewers of national emergencies.

Several consumers had complained about the trailer for the movie "The Olympus Has Fallen" shown on the television channels Comedy Central, ESPN and SyFy in March of 2013.

The FCC review confirmed that the 30-second ad for the movie used portions of EAS codes and alert signals, accompanied by text "this is not a test" and "this is not a drill," which caused "the transmission of false distress signals."

Viacom now faces $1.1 million in penalties for airing the ad 108 times on seven of its channels; NBCUniversal faces a charge of $530,000 for showing the trailer 38 times on seven of its cable networks; and ESPN faces a penalty of $280,000 for showing the promo 13 times on three of its networks.

During the investigation, Viacom and NBCUniversal had argued they were not liable for the promos and were not subject to the FCC's rules on EAS signals as they were not participants in the EAS program. The regulators disagreed.

The EAS is a national public warning system that ensures the U.S. president could address all Americans during a national emergency and allows federal, state, and local authorities to deliver emergency information, such as Amber Alerts about missing children or tornado warnings.

The FCC has been going after EAS violators following what it says has been a recent spike in consumer complaints. In November, the agency proposed a similar $25,000 fine to Turner Broadcasting, a cable unit of Time Warner Inc, for a promo for the Conan O'Brien comedy show on TBS.

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