A majority of Federal Communications Commission members said yesterday they favor a formal reconsideration of the agency's vote last month approving Washington Star Communications Inc.'s exchange of WJLA-TV for a station in Oklahoma City.
Commissioners Joseph R. Fogarty, Tyrone Brown and Robert E. Lee said they would support the proposal of a fourth member, James H. Quello, that the regulatory agency reconsider its 5-2 approval on Jan. 12 of the station swap.
The possible reconsideration could come before the commissioner for a vote at an "emergency" meeting during the next three days or be considered by each member through circulation of an internal memo.
Agency sources said they expect some resolution of the matter, as well as a decision on a separate request by area citizens groups who seek to delay the exchange, by Thursday night. Throughout its history, the FCC rarely has reconsidered decisions or approved stays.
If the FCC is to reconsider its January decision, it must do so within 30 days of the release of the initial order, which was Jan. 17.
A majority vote in favor of either the formal reconsideration or the stay could jeopardize the transfer of WJLA to Combined Communications Corp., under a contract that expires at the end of this month.
Quello, in a memorandum to FCC Chairman Charles D. Ferris last week, said some member colleagues had "reluctantly approved" the transfer of WJLA to Combined Communications, of Phoenix, because of a belief that dividends and profits from the transaction were needed to "guarantee the financial viability" of The Washington Star.
Both The Star and WJLA are owned by Washington Star Communications, which in turn is owned by Star Chairman Joe L. Allbritton. Under an earlier FCC ruling, Allbritton was told to divest himself of either the newspaper or Washington television station by next January.
When Allbritton announced on Feb. 3 that Time Inc. had agreed to buy The Star for $20 million plus assumption of liabilities, some members of the FCC staff and several commissioners were stunned. One agency offical said members of the FCC's Broadcast Bureau were "outraged" by Allbritton's sale of the newspaper, since they had recommended the broadcast transfer mainly to save the newspaper.
"We were told this sale would assure financial viability of The Star," said Quello yesterday. "I'm not leading a real hard charge . . . there has been no public outcry for divestiture, but if we do have a rule it should be applied even-handedly," Quello added.
Quello, who was with the majority in approving the transfer of WJLA, said he personally questions whether he would have voted in favor, "under the new circumstances" of Time's agreement to buy the Star.
"For the last three or four years, we've run unusually high deficits. It is not an acceptable condition," Giaimo contended. The average voter may not understand all the concepts, he said, "but they understand that when government is spending $60 billion more than it is taking in, it leads to inflation and a lack of business confidence."
"The Democratic majority always argued that if it got the economy moving again, got inflation down and unemployment down," there would not be a need to run large deficits, he said.
"Well, we've got unemployment moving down, the inflation rate is relatively stable and the economy has been growing at between 4.5 percent and 5 percent. Still the dificit is projected to be as big as ever. Something's wrong," Giaimo said.
"While it's true that some of the deficit is due to the tax cut, in part the tax cuts are simply offsetting Social Security tax increases.
Time's board of directors is scheduled to vote on the agreement "in principle" at a meeting in New York on Thursday. Under the proposal, which a Time spokesman said is still subject to final negotiations, Allbritton would remain as publisher and chief executive of The Star for five years.
Commissioners Fogarty and Brown, who dissented at the Jan. 12 meeting for differing reasons, said yesterday they would support Quello's proposal. Commissioner Lee, while emphasizing that he has made no decision on whether he would approve the sale a second time, said he also would support reconsideration.
Chairman Ferris said last night, following briefings from legal officers and Broadcast Bureau staff members, that he expected the agency to act "in a timely matter" but he gave no hint of his own views.
Commissioner Abbott M. Washburn said he favors "waiting and seeing" if the Combined Communications-WJLA sale takes place, and would not vote in favor of reconsideration at this time.
A spokesman for the seventh agency member, Margita E. White, said she "has not made up her mind."
At issue is a complex financial agreement under which Allbritton would become a major stockholder of Combined Communications and would own KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City, while CCC would take over WJLA (Channel 7), an American Broadcasting Co. affiliate here.
A majority of the FCC concluded in January that since ALlbritton's stock in Combined would be non-voting, he would have no effective control over operations of the Washington station.
However, the possibility that the FCC may reconsider its earlier approval and an earlier appeal by citizens groups to the FCC to stay its decision, have raised the possibility that the WJLA exchange could be aborted. The citizens group has asked for the stay until its federal lawsuit to block the exchange is heard.
If Combined and ALlbritton fail to complete the transaction by Feb. 28, or if the FCC has not given its final approval by Feb. 24, the contract will be void. That could present new problems for Allbritton, since several FCC officials said he could not continue as owner of WJLA and Star Publisher after next January.
A spokesman for Time said yesterday that the ownership issue would be a problem for Allbritton, but would not concern the giant publishing company. Allbritton's lawyer, Berl Bernhard, declined to comment.
One source said there is "nothing in any of the rules" that would prohibit ALlbritton from being Star publisher and WJLA owner. But Commissioner Washburn said that if the WJLA sale falls through, Allbritton would have until next January to find a new owner for the station or to leave the Star, a view shared by other FCC officials.
As of last night, according to Combined Communications counsel Lawrence R. Wilson, there has been no discussion of extending the WJLA contract.
In another development yesterday, a lawyer for the four citizens groups seeking to block the WJLA sale, said a petition to stay the FCC approval would be filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals here if the agency doesn't act this week.
The D.C. Media Task Force, Adams Morgan Organization, National Organization for Women and National Black Media Coalition contend that FCC approval was incorrect because it added to media ownership concentration in large markets and because Allbritton allegedly violated a pledge to seek minority ownership for WJLA.