‘Conan,’ TBS Face FCC Fine Over Comedic Use of Gov’t Emergency Signal

Conan O'Brien -- seen recently on his TBS late-night show (Photo: TBS)

A “Conan” promo spot that simulated the sounds of the Emergency Alert System looks like it will cost TBS $25,000.

The Federal Communications Commission this week alerted TBS it is slapping the cable network with a fine in that amount over the 2012 promo it telecast that used the well-known sounds intended to warn viewers in cases of local and national emergencies.

The FCC — the government agency charged with fining those who misuse the distinctive EAS sounds — has given Turner notice of the fine for “the transmission of false distress signals,” unless it can dissuade the commission within 30 days.

The FCC this past February launched an investigation into a viewer complaint about the spot. The FCC says Turner has admitted it produced and distributed a spot using “a prerecorded ‘sound burst’ followed by a ‘bars and tone’ sound” familiar to all who have ever heard an EAS warning or test of the system.

According to FCC filings, Turner told the commission that the promo was produced under a “tight timeframe” and was not reviewed by the network’s “standards and practices” staff. Since then, all promos for “Conan” have undergone scrutiny before broadcast, TBS said.

Turner declined comment on Wednesday.

Abuse of the Emergency Alert System (once known as the Emergency Broadcast System) — including TV and radio commercials using the EAS sounds “to capture audience attention” — is a growing trend, the FCC said.

The FCC has prohibited the transmission of actual or simulated EAS Attention Signals or tones under any circumstances other than a real alert or an authorized test of the EAS system for two decades. The EAS, the commission says, is a national public warning system that requires broadcasters, cable television operators, wireless cable operators, wireline video service providers, satellite digital audio radio service providers, and direct broadcast satellite providers to make it possible for the President of the United States to address the American public during a national emergency.

Federal, state, and local authorities may also use the EAS to deliver important emergency information, such as Amber Alerts and weather information, such as tornado warnings, targeted to specific areas.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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