Fox Fined For Using EAS Tone In Football Ad

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.

Emergency alert as captured on the Weather Channel. Some broadcasters will cut over video to a full textual display as above, while others will put the text in a thin red band over the regular content. Credit: YouTube

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 Folly

Fox used three seconds of the EAS attention tone in this NFL football advert. That was enough to draw a half-a-million dollar fine from the FCC. Credit: YouTube

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.

82 thoughts on “Fox Fined For Using EAS Tone In Football Ad

  1. Good – if only we could get them to fine advertisers who include sirens and horns as well, that’d be great. Those have triggered more than one “What the heck?!?” while driving the daily commute!

      1. Not just dogs, my own sub-conscious is keyed to that sound and it immediately jolts me. In case any advertisers think that sounds excellent: it doesn’t draw my attention to whatever is happening on screen, it distracts me to my front door and the only adverts there are made of paper and lying on the doormat.

    1. I used to contact and complain and ask who is responsible if there is a wreck. Also about phone ringing or car horns and crash sounds. Especially bad form when in adverts on drive-time talk radio.

    1. Not all countries/places are the same, though.
      In some, this shameful act would have had serious political consequences, since this false alert played with the well being of citizens.

      But this is the US. A country built upon money and a free market. The mindset is different, I suppose. Success, money and the job are important. Federal agencies like the FCC nolonger have the power they once had. Or so it seems to a foreigner like me.

      1. “F*ck that!”

        … is a comment that I could not say over public airwaves in the US because the FCC will come down on me with their entire mite.

        When Janet Jackson showed a nipple on TV during a Super Bowl, they came down incredibly hard on radio.

        Yes, radio. The ones that can’t show nips.

        1. I think to recall that the FCC dropped ‘fuck’ from their list since it had become common language.
          The advertisers however have more censorship powers and apply them harder.
          Oh and the enthusiastic internet moderators who work for the advertisers really also get all Stalinesque.

          1. The FCC has not ‘dropped’ f*ck from their ‘list’. It has not walked back its existing policy, which states in pertinent part: “The ‘F-Word’ is a vulgar sexual term so grossly offensive to members of the public that it amounts to a nuisance and is presumptively profane. It is one of the most offensive words in the English language, the broadcast of which is likely to shock the viewer and disturb the peace and quiet of the home.”

      2. Lmao free markets. Yeah free markets where you can do stuff like be an automotive manufacturer and sell directly to customers, bypassing the uniquely American dealership scam. Ahaha.

    2. the fine described in this article is so small as to be a limp slap on the wrist. fox and superbowl rake in millions of dollars per ad that are barely vine/tiktok length.
      [[other blah blah about fox making money off your cable bill even if you dont watch them (and “unfox my cable box” mention) ]]
      the fine definitely needs to be scaled to the infringing party.

    3. Yeah half a million for a superbowl ad? Nothing. Guarantee you that line item was already tacked onto the budget long before it aired. Fines are a way of telling the proles that the law is for only them to follow.
      Public pillory… or gallows… Those might work.

    4. I’d make that a MUCH larger fine – say $50M – along with a serious threat of C-Level butts being thrown into prison for a second offence. That’s the only to bypass the ‘corporate personhood’ fiction that confers citizens’ rights upon corporations without the responsibilities that go along with those rights.

    5. this is why i think all fines should be % of gross income from all sources based (meant to close any bullshit loopholes rich ppl use to claim they made no money) . with a set minimum and a max of 100% of yearly depending on severity. this works well as the fine for anything would hurt the same no matter income level.

      where shit like this should be in at least the 25% range.

  2. $0.5M is probably more expensive than the monetary benefit from this ad, but not really enough to sting an NFL broadcast service’s budget. The news from the fine is also inadvertent advertisement. It seems like the fine should be much higher to me.

  3. I’m shocked.

    Having worked for a radio station one thing I am positive about is that any broadcaster knows better than to do that.

    But.. $504,000 That’s it?!?! With all the money they make off of Football which is what they were advertising? That’s barely a slap on the wrist for Fox. There should be at least one if not two more zeros on that. They might even keep on pulling the same stunt and call it a business expense!

    Is this what the justice system has come to? It would have definitely been orders of magnitude higher if that had been a less powerful company.

    1. They should make the fine “neither the advertiser nor the broadcaster is allowed to profit even $0.01 from the advertised/broadcast event”. Make Fox forfeit all the revenue from the advertised game broadcast, or outright prohibit the advertised game from being broadcast at all. A bunch of pissed off NFL fans and all the bad press ought to convince them a repeat is a really bad idea …

  4. There is an athletic department for a university in the midwest (whose nickname is a certain weather phenomena) that has used the alert tones as part of their pregame video for years. Since it is not broadcast over the airwaves, it is technically not illegal…..but still a bad idea anyway.

  5. But the point is, if you lie all the time, nobody’s going to believe you, even when you’re telling the truth.
    Are you sure that’s the point, Doctor?
    Of course. What else could it be?
    That you should never tell the same lie twice.

    1. Funny. Having heard those nasty tones ever since I was a kid. It never occured to me they actually encoded messages. I thought they only designed to get your attention by being so out of the ordinary and irritating. Now it makes sense why you never hear than except for legitimate messages or … adverts.

      1. The Attention Signal (not “attention tone”) does not encode any message. See 47 CFR 11.31(a)(2). The other sounds are codes that designate the start and end of the EAS alert and contain other data such as the event code and originator.

  6.’s always sportsball…I don’t care about sportsball…if I heard this on my TV, I’d be the first to complain to the FCC.

    the fine is a joke, i’d fine the sportsball team, each sportsball player, each sportsball broadcaster, etc.

  7. Wonder what the fine would be if any of us “broadcast” those tones on specific frequencies in enough places to reach all 200 NFL fans?

    Just guessing but I bet the FCC would take away my radio, my radio license and prohibit me from transmitting until I was really really sorry. Corporations are allegedly virtual persons aren’t they? Why hasn’t the FCC said “Dear transgressor, due to violations of blah and blah you are hereby prohibited from transmitting on public airwaves until you are really really sorry.”

    Just so I’m not only complaining (hopeful of solution) – is this a scenario where something like a public key could be sent during the message/tones and then used by receiving stations to verify/decode the subsequent message? (Just found – maybe something good there)

  8. Honest thought. With all the people moving to streaming services how many TVs even have antennas plugged in capable of picking up an EAS? Since we can’t depend on cable to transmit the signal. How many smart TVs are compliant? Since streaming services are obviously not under jurisdiction of the FCC it would be rather difficult to make them support all this.

    1. That’s a good question – for what it’s worth, on the Comcast cable network they’ll transmit the signal and they do a somewhat random weekly test that hits all channels simultaneously. If you happen to be watching a recording or a streaming service via one of the apps on their set top box (as opposed to using another device) it’ll interrupt to display the alert. It’s actually pretty intrusive about it – you’ll get bounced back to whatever live TV channel was on before you’d started your app, and if you happened to be watching a time-delayed show (e.g. “I was watching ‘X’ and pressed pause to go get a snack, use the bathroom, etc. …”) you get bounced back to real-time with no way to rewind and catch what you missed. Annoying for a test, but pretty good behavior for an actual emergency.

  9. I’ve always kinda liked the sound of the alert. While the interval is pretty dissonant, it’s worth noting that it’s a lot closer to a just major 2nd (or an epogdoon!) than an equal-tempered major second (204 cents just vs 200 cents equal-tempered), so it does resonate a lot better than most other synthesized major seconds I’m used to hearing.

  10. That fine is a gentle slap on the wrist. A highly profitable simple solution would be the sledge hammer approach – If any company uses EAS to gain profit, their legal status as incorporated is suspended or fully dissolved and all assists are transferred to the federal government, as forfeiture. Then you can be guaranteed that no company will make that mistake once.

    1. I’m with many others here, saying the half-million dollar fine is a joke. Make it TEN million dollars, AND some sort of probation for the next handful of years (maybe five or six?). Any screw-ups during that probation, and the FCC starts pulling broadcast licenses.

      We can joke about Fox and broadcasting lies until the weevils come home, but NOBODY should ever be allowed to get away with mucking up emergency systems, for any reason, but especially not advertising.

  11. That PBS kids program video clip had me briefly thinking my local FM radio wasn’t muted on my keyboard whilst playing the video. Then I realized it was off. Awful close for my location. It already passed overhead. What I missed that? I am a certified spotter. Good weather now.

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