Imagine sitting around your Florida home in August, just as hurricane season is swinging into high gear, when your TV suddenly starts making a familiar alert sound, declaring “This is not a test. This is an emergency broadcast transmission.” Then you look up at the screen and see it’s just an ad for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Not only is this a bad idea for a TV commercial; it’s also against the law.
More precisely, to “knowingly utter or transmit.. any false or fraudulent signal of distress” is a violation of Section 325(a) of the Communications Act.
Yet, in Aug. 2016, NBC affiliate WTLV in Jacksonville repeatedly broadcast the following ad, promoting the Jaguars, to local viewers:
The soundtrack to the commercial mimicked very closely one you’d hear through the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
“This is an emergency broadcast transmission. This is not a test,” announced the commercial, over slow-motion footage of Jaguars players at practice. “This is an emergency broadcast transmission. This is not a test. Please remain calm. Seek shelter.”
Folks in the area complained to the Federal Communications Commission, which launched an investigation. The ad had been supplied to WTLV by the Jaguars and ran on the station four times over the course of three days. The station told the FCC that it has policies against airing bogus EAS messages, but that station staff failed to screen this commercial before airing it.
It wasn’t until this fourth airing that a senior station staffer saw the commercial and alerted WTLV’s president to advise him that the ad might be an improper EAS broadcast.
This week, WTLV’s owner TEGNA Inc., agreed to a settlement [PDF] with the FCC, whereby the company pays $55,000 and agrees to come up with a better compliance plan.