Monday, September 13, 2010

This Is Not A Test...

The big hullabaloo last week among broadcast engineers was about a radio commercial that was setting off the Emergency Alert System. To be more accurate, it triggered certain brands of decoders at some stations, which lead to confusion and concern about FCC regulations. Here's the rule as stated by the FCC: (highlight added)

Section 11.45 Prohibition of false or deceptive EAS transmissions.
No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS. Broadcast station licensees
should also refer to Section 73.1217 of this chapt

Back in 1938 Orson Wells had the good s
ense to preface "War of the Worlds" with a disclaimer. The problem was many listeners tuned in late and didn't hear it. The FCC has been kinda touchy about triggering panic ever since.

OK. That seems pretty clear; don't imitate the EAS. What's so hard about following that rule?
The problem crops up when an advertiser, in this case BP/Arco, who isn't exactly known for their good judgment these days, tells their ad agency, "We want to sound like an emergency so people will respond. Make fun of the EAS. DO IT! Or we'll find another agency who will." So, the agency's radio producer finds actual EAS data bursts, apparently from a station in Tampa based on location codes, frequency shifted them (sped them up) and talked over them.

It shoulda worked. Problem is some brands of EAS decoders can still read the data bursts in spite of the distortions added, and that causes those stations to log an "unknown event." And that causes funky log entries for the FCC to read when that station gets inspected. Remember that rule posted above; this ain't supposed to happen. Phones ring. Tempers flare.

The FCC was notified, but an official statement has yet to be made. Most in the business don't expect much more than some finger wagging and a reminder to station managers that they are ultimately responsible if something illegal airs on their stations. Problem with that is station managers aren't very likely to tell an advertiser "Your commercial will get us fined. We won't air it." Much like the way the illegal use of copyright protected music in commercials is winked at, managers are more likely to tell sales reps "Do it until we're told to stop, if we get caught at all."

After hearing from various people with scary titles behind their names, BP/Arco's agency Ogilvy and Mather released an alternative spot sans violation that could be run in place of the original. If you care to hear the offending spot, listen here. (Opens a player.)

At the end of the day, it's an infantile radio commercial that only caused problems for several radio and TV stations unfortunate to have installed an inferior brand of EAS equipment not capable of filtering altered codes. We did not accidentally declare war on anybody, and nobody in the listening public was greatly inconvenienced with the exception of, I'm certain, a few misguided persons incapable of discerning an authentic emergency message from a lame attempt at comedy most likely written by a college intern. Radio commercials are, by and large, not produced to engage the emergency management community, first responders, or anyone with an education beyond the ninth grade. They are produced for the stupid. This one clearly hit the bullseye.


Anonymous said...

Look at what passes for entertainment and information now. Anything beyond a ninth grade level is lost on the vast majority of people. Here's a comforting thought...that same "vast majority" will be guiding the future of the country. Well gawwww-lee! Let's run through the mud on our ATV's, toss some dead animals on the back and then sit around a campfire all night ingiting our own flatulence. Sorry about the big words at the end of the post "vast majority" - figure it out and deal with it.

stevef said...

You're touching on the level at which political advertising works: same level of education, same amount of misleading information. What's depressing to me is the fact that I was told back in the 1970's that the news was written for a sixth grade level. I was hoping we'd be up to the ninth grade at least by now.

Ralph said...

This file should now be a standard test suite for EAS boxes.