Some elements on sports broadcasts sometimes lead to FCC fines (see the 2004 Super Bowl), but it’s rare to see a fine levied over a rebroadcast of a documentary nine years after that documentary first aired. That’s what recently happened to ESPN, though. As George Winslow wrote in a post at TV Technology this weekend, an October 2020 rebroadcast of 30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle (a 2011 documentary directed by Martin Khodabakhshian on Auburn, Alabama and the 2011 tornadoes in the state of Alabama, originally under the ESPN Films Presents banner but now rolled into 30 for 30) sparked a complaint to the FCC, an investigation, and now a fine thanks to that documentary’s usage of Emergency Alert System (EAS) tones. Here’s more from Winslow’s post:
The FCC Enforcement Bureau has issued a $20K fine against ESPN for “willfully violating the Commission’s rules that prohibit the transmission of false or deceptive emergency alert system” tones during a program.
The FCC said the violation occurred during the airing of the program “30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle” on October 20, 2020. After receiving a complaint about the broadcast of the tones on October 27, 2020, the FCC started an investigation and notified ESPN.
In a March 21, 2021 response, ESPN admitted that the tones had been broadcast but said they were part of the depiction of April 27, 2011 tornadoes “for storytelling purposes” during the documentary.
…The network argued, however, that the broadcast EAS tones could “not have triggered any automated relay equipment” because the portion transmitted “did not include audio frequency-shift (AFSK) tones” and that the tones appeared very briefly in the program for only 1.83 seconds.
The FCC rejected those arguments and proposed a higher fine than the $8,000 base forfeiture for section 11.45 of the Commission’s rules covering violations of emergency alerts.
“The nature of EAS violations requires particularly serious consideration because, among other issues, such violations undermine the integrity of the EAS by desensitizing viewers to the potential importance of warning tones and therefore implicate substantial public safety concerns,” the FCC concluded. It also noted that ESPN had been fined in the past for violating these rules.
Indeed they have, and on a much higher level. In 2015, the FCC fined ESPN $280,000 and Viacom $1,120,000 for repeatedly broadcasting a trailer for movie No Surrender that included EAS tones. So $20,000 is small change in comparison. But it’s still funny to see ESPN slapped with a fine over a 2020 rebroadcast of a documentary from 2011, especially as re-airs of archival content are usually done from a standpoint of “It’s free programming!” In this case, it was not. But it seems likely that if they air Roll Tide/War Eagle again, that will come with a decision to edit out the EAS tones.