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Cable companies fined $2 million for using Emergency Alert System tone in movie trailer

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A surprise attack on the White House by North Korean terrorists could well justify commandeering American airwaves using the Emergency Alert System, but that doesn't mean the FCC looks kindly on people using its distinctive tones for a movie trailer about such an attack. The FCC has issued a $1.9 million fine against Viacom, NBC Universal, and ESPN for their promotions of 2013 action movie Olympus has Fallen. According to a filing, it started receiving complaints in March of 2013, when Viacom-owned Comedy Central aired a trailer containing the two-tone emergency signal. The trailer aired several more times on other channels over the following days, and viewers weren't happy. "This is misleading and had our entire family running to the TV to find out what was going on, only to find it was a commercial," reads one complaint.

Viacom, NBC Universal, and ESPN acknowledged that the video included the tone, and that they approved it as consistent with their guidelines. By doing so, they violated rules that bar broadcasters from "crying wolf" by using the emergency alert signal absent a real crisis. "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," says the FCC's report.

The FCC filing notes that Viacom and ESPN have since revised their guidelines in order to ban material that uses real or simulated alert tones, but the FCC is still levying a fine for what it calls a willful and repeated violation of a well-established rule. Viacom is expected to pay $1.12 million for airing the trailers, NBC Universal must pay $530,000, and ESPN has been fined $280,000. All three companies have 30 days to either forfeit the money or officially protest the decision. All three fines are significantly higher than the $25,000 punishment handed down to TBS after the company produced a Conan ad simulating the Emergency Alert System noise, but they're all part of an effort to keep Americans from getting too used to the blaring sound — unless they happen to live somewhere with frequent rain storms.