Hollywood disaster movie sparks $2m fines – because trailer was too realistic

Watchdog says advert included messages, noises and alerts that should only ever be used in the event of national emergency

A US disaster movie trailer has resulted in fines of almost $2m after it included the actual series of noises used by the government in cases of national emergency.

Some complainants reported “jumping out of the bath and rushing to the TV screen” after hearing an advert for the 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen, which included official warning signals and the words “this is not a drill”.

The Federal Communications Commission found that three media companies had “apparently wilfully and repeatedly violated” its rules regarding the proper use of the national Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Many of those in the US would be familiar with – and some even trained to respond to – the series of three buzzes followed by a longer tone which make up the EAS code, used to warn the nation of impending disaster.

The trailer, which also showed scenes where the White House is partially destroyed in a terrorist attack, was shown on TV channels Comedy Central, ESPN and SyFy in March last year.

The FCC review said this week that Olympus Has Fallen, which starred Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman, breached its rules and caused “the transmission of false distress signals”.

Viacom now faces $1.1m (£658,000) in penalties for airing the ad 108 times on seven of its channels; NBC Universal faces a charge of $530,000 for showing the trailer 38 times on seven of its cable networks; and ESPN faces a penalty of $280,000 for showing the promo 13 times on three of its networks.

At the time of the investigation, Viacom and NBC Universal argued that because they do not participate in the actual EAS programme in event of real disaster, they should not be liable. The FCC disagreed.

It could be argued that the companies should have seen the fines coming – when the trailer was first put on YouTube 11 months ago, one user apparently commented: “I can personally guarantee that before TV stations air the movie and if the EAS tones are in it, stations will either substitute [in] other tones or simply blank them out entirely.

Listen to the actual EAS disaster code:

“There's no way they're going to risk a $10,000 dollar FCC fine by broadcasting them in a non-emergency, non-authorised situation like a trailer or a movie.

“Each instance will cost them $10,000. Stations are just not going to do it. I'm in TV, and I know the rules.”

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