The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a simple parable that teaches children the fatal risk of raising a false alarm. To do so is to risk one’s life when raising the alarm about a real emergency that may go duly ignored.
Today, we rarely fear wolves, and we don’t worry about them eating us, our sheep, or our children. Instead, we worry about bigger threats, like incoming nuclear weapons, tornadoes, and earthquakes. We’ve built systems to warn us of these calamities, and authorities take a very dim view of those who misuse these alarms. Fox did just that in a recent broadcast, using a designated alarm tone for an advert. This quickly drew the attention of the Federal Communication Commission.
The Emergency Alert System is Not To Be Trifled With
The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a nationwide emergency broadcasting system that allows the quick and timely delivery of crucial information. It’s capable of broadcasting emergency updates via television, whether broadcast, satellite, or cable, as well as via AM, FM, and satellite radio. The EAS took over from the original Emergency Broadcast System in 1997, which itself was predated by the CONELRAD system which dated back all the way to 1951.
The characteristic angry digital tones of the Emergency Alert System actually contain data encoded using the Specific Area Message Encoding protocol, a technology developed by the National Weather Service. Broadcast stations monitor other radio and TV stations, listening out for these tones. Alerts are first played out via a selection of 77 “primary” alert broadcasters, and other stations monitoring them then rebroadcast the same alerts in a daisy-chained fashion. The data within the tones tells equipment in any given TV or radio broadcaster who originated the emergency alert, what the alert is about, and the affected area, along with other metadata. Based on this data, equipment in any given broadcast station will determine whether or not to begin broadcasting the given alert. For example, a broadcast station in New York won’t rebroadcast tornado warnings for Texas. However, if the President is on the blower and desperately needs to talk to the nation, the station will broadcast the alert over normal programming. Broadcasters are legally required to play any applicable alert messages by diktat of the FCC. Outside of the digital tones containing the alert information, the EAS shortly follows this with an “attention tone” which combines 853 Hz and 960 Hz sine waves. This is an annoying and attention-grabbing sound that approximates the musically-ugly major second interval, and was carried over from the Emergency Broadcast System.
The characteristic tones of the Emergency Alert System are prohibited from general broadcasting by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). They may not be played outside of real alerts, regular tests, or special pre-authorized public service announcements. This is for multiple reasons. Any such false alerts that end up on radio or TV could trigger the Emergency Alert System hardware in other broadcasters, which would cut over programming as in a genuine alert. Beyond that, there is the risk of individuals becoming desensitized to the alerts, and not taking them seriously. The attention tones, in particular, are intended to warn people of risks to their very lives. Outside of necessary routine testing, they shouldn’t be used.
A sample Emergency Alert System broadcast. Note the digital sounds of the alert data and the warning message cut-in. Don’t play this on radio or TV lest you want the attention of the FCC.
Fox’s error was using three seconds of the Emergency Alert System’s attention tone to promote a football broadcast on several of its television channels. The idea is simple: use an emergency warning tone to capture the attention of viewers, and then deliver the desired advertising while they’re concentrating on the message. It’s a cheap and callous trick, so it’s perhaps little surprise it ended up in advertising.
The FCC looks dimly upon such tactics. The broadcaster was found guilty of playing the “comedic” ad on 190 affiliated broadcast TV stations as well as on Fox Sports Radio and the Fox Sports XM channel. The proposed fine for the misdeed was $504,000.
Sadly, it’s not the only case of emergency alerts being misused for attention-grabbing adverts. WLTV in Florida similarly caught a large fine back in 2016 for using similar tactics to advertise the Summer Olympics, along with the phrasing “This is not a test, this is an emergency broadcast transmission.”
Outside of advertising, the FCC doesn’t allow broadcasts of these tones in context, either. Cable companies have received fines for broadcasting the tones within movies, and CBS drew punishment for including a masked tone in the background audio of a scene of Young Sheldon. In the latter case, the warning was completely anachronistic and didn’t make any sense. The characters in the show were watching television in the early 1990s, yet somehow the Texas broadcasters were using EAS tones that weren’t in use until 1997. CBS had pre-tested the masked audio in the episode with EAS equipment to ensure it wouldn’t cause other broadcasters to latch on to the tones and rebroadcast the alert message. However, the FCC deemed that it shouldn’t have been broadcasting the tones in the first place.
The Emergency Alert System is a vital piece of emergency infrastructure. One might expect broadcasting professionals to treat this system with respect. However, time and again, various broadcasters, both big and small, have chosen to use the EAS’s recognizable tones for their own gains. The rules are out there in black and white, and many have already fallen afoul of them. It’s thus hard to excuse any US broadcaster that willingly chooses to misuse emergency broadcast audio.