FCC hits ESPN with fine over use of emergency tones

A broadcast of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” as viewed through Dish Network’s streaming service “Sling TV.” (Image: Sling TV/Handout, Graphic by The Desk)

Federal regulators have proposed a $20,000 fine against sports broadcaster ESPN after the network aired a documentary that included emergency alert tones.

The tones aired last year during a replay of a 2011 documentary under ESPN’s “30 for 30” brand. The documentary focused on the effect of severe weather in Alabama and its effect on a college football team there.

Though it was not the first time ESPN had aired the documentary, the October 2020 broadcast resulted in a viewer filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the documentary’s use of tones that are reserved for messages delivered through the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

While the FCC does not typically regulate broadcasts on pay TV platforms like cable, satellite and streaming, it does regulate use of EAS tones, which are usually reserved for emergency messages.

The airing of such tones during normal programming has been known to trigger systems used by other broadcasters for the deployment of EAS messages. During the FCC’s investigation, ESPN argued that the tones were used “for storytelling purposes” and that the sound broadcast during the documentary lacked audio frequency shift tones that would trigger other EAS equipment.

But the FCC investigated ESPN’s use of the tones anyway, and ultimately decided that a $20,000 fine was warranted. The amount includes a base fine of $8,000 and an additional $12,000 penalty, an upward adjustment based on ESPN’s prior use of EAS tones.

It was not clear if ESPN intended to appeal the proposed fine handed down by the FCC earlier this month.

ESPN is operated through a joint partnership between the Walt Disney Company and Hearst Communications, with Disney owning a majority stake in the business.