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Cable Channels Hit With Nearly $2 Million Fine for Airing Movie Trailer

Note to Hollywood: Using the Emergency Alert public warning system in movie trailers is a bad idea.

Remember the movie “Olympus Has Fallen,” the 2013 popcorn flick about a guerrilla assault on the White House that is foiled by a heroic Secret Service agent? No?

Viacom, NBCUniversal and ESPN are likely to remember it for years to come, after getting slapped with proposed fines of nearly $2 million for airing a film trailer that used the Emergency Alert System tones.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission proposed $1.93 million in fines against the three programmers, Viacom ($1.12 million), NBCUniversal ($530,000) and Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN ($280,000), for airing the offending “Olympus Has Fallen” movie trailer multiple times.

Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal is an invester in Re/code.

Broadcasters and pay-TV operators are required to test the Emergency Alert System periodically to make sure it’s working in case of an actual national or local emergency. The unmistakable tones are not, however, allowed to be used for other purposes, particularly a commercial.

The FCC began getting complaints about the commercial in early March 2013, after the spot ran on Viacom’s Comedy Central channel. Within a few days, officials at the Motion Picture Association of America, the Society of Broadcast Engineers and other broadcast groups realized there was a problem and circulated word to members to stop airing the trailer.

“Frivolous, casual, or other uses of EAS Tones for reasons other than their defined purpose can desensitize viewers to the tones and thereby undermine the effectiveness of the system in the event of an actual emergency,” the FCC said in its complaint. “Although admitting their inclusion of actual EAS Tones in commercials transmitted in their programming, the companies have questioned their liability under the Act and the Commission’s rules.”

A Comcast spokeswoman didn’t have immediate comment about the proposed fine. In responses to the FCC, both ESPN and Viacom said they have changed their advertising guidelines and no longer allow ads that contain actual Emergency Alert signals or simulations of them.

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