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Broadcasters: Mind Your Station’s April Fools’ Day Shenanigans

Next Monday is April 1, April Fools’ Day, a day on which the public delights in pranking each other.

For broadcasters, conducting on-air pranks could have serious FCC consequences, stemming from the FCC’s on-air hoax rule, Section 73.121.

This section “prevents stations from running any information about a ‘crime or catastrophe’ on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused,” wrote David Oxenford, an attorney with TAB Associate Member law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, back in 2023.

“Public harm is defined as ‘direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties.’  If you air a program that fits within this definition and causes a public harm, you should expect to be fined by the FCC.”

Despite some theatrical radio and television productions over the history of broadcasting that some deemed “hoaxes,” such as the 1939 CBS/Mercury Theater on the Air production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the rule is more modern than that.

“This rule was adopted in the early 1990s after several incidents that were well-publicized in the broadcast industry, including one case where the on-air personalities at a station falsely claimed that they had been taken hostage, and another case where a station broadcast bulletins reporting that a local trash dump had exploded like a volcano and was spewing burning trash,” Oxenford said. 

“In both cases, first responders were notified about the non-existent emergencies and emergency teams responded to the fake events after listeners called.
Thus, these crucial emergency personnel were temporarily not available to respond to real emergencies. After the publicity from these incidents, the FCC adopted its prohibition against broadcast hoaxes.”

Oxenford also cautions that station shenanigans that risk bodily harm to participants could raise the threat of the station’s civil liability.

Even a case that does not result in liability “can be expensive to defend and subject the station to unwanted negative publicity,” Oxenford cautioned.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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