Concluding one of the longest government regulatory proceedings in history, a bitterly divided Federal Communications Commission voted 4-3 yesterday to renew the television license of Chicago's Tribune Co. for WPIX (Channel 11) in New York City.
The close vote indicated, however, that broadcasters may face much tougher federal scrutiny in the future if their licenses are challenged at normalrenewal intervals.
Chairman Charles Ferris said the majority decision is "unsupportable in fact or law and charged that a WPIX plan for integrating management into company ownership "was decidedly inferior - if not a sham" when compared with proposals of a group that sought the coveted VHF license.
Ferris was joined in his strong dissent by Joseph Fogarty and Tyrone Brown. The three Democrats complained that the majority decision amounted to a wrongful endorsement of concentrated media ownership and a denial of the opportunity for minorities to participate in the broadcast business.
Commissioner Margita White, who is not expected to be reappointed by President Carter when her term expires later this month, cast the deciding vote. If a Carter appointee sides in future cases with the three dissenters yesterday, a new agency majority might act more favorably to challengers when existing station ownership is questioned at renewal time.
WPIX is controlled by the New York Daily News, the country's largest-circulating daily newspaper, which in turn is owned by Tribune Co. of Chicago owner of the Chicago Tribune and broadcast, cable TV or newspaper properties around the country.
Tribune Co. properties include WPIX-FM in New York and 80 per cent of Connecticut Broadcasting Co., owner of WICC-AM in Bridgeport, Conn. which is within the TV station's of ownership must be awarded to the challenger," said Ferris and the other dissenters.
The WPIX case came to the FCC after complaints that the independent TV station had distorted news reports in 1968. Various agency members have come and gone in the years since as Forum Communications Inc, a company not now engaged in broadcasting rought to win government approval for a license to operate on channel 11 in the New York area.
Among Forum's owners were minority persons with about 6 percent of the voting stock. The agency majority concluded that Forum was capable of obtaining about $4 million necessary to implement broadcasting over Channel 11.
However, the commission said WPIX is "entitled to a plus of major significance for its past broadcast record and a moderate preference for integration of wonership and management" a reference to a 1969 decision to issue 8,500 shares of preferred stock (40 percent of voting stock) to seven WPIX executives.
Ferris and the other dissemters said "it was curious" that it took WPIX more than 30 years and the filing of a competing application to make seven managers into "owners." They noted also that WPIX could buy the stock if the employes quit.
The dissenters said the majority appeared determined to "stack the deck" against Forum and thus make it "clear that no challenger could ever hope to pass its tests and supplant an incumbent" TV station owner.
The basic challenge to Tribune Co.'s ownership of WPIX came on charges that the station distorted, falsified and misrepresented news; lacked control over the newsroom and violated sponsorship identification rules.
During a period of management change in the WPIX newsroom in 1968, the station ran day-old or older film without identifying it as such, occasionally provided incorrect titles on the screen in connection with films, and offered a "few humourous, oral embellishments" of accurate news stories.
The FCC majority said these incidents were very few in number and "insignifficant aberrations." But the minority claimed WPIX had "a broadcast record medicore at best and riddled with violations of the letter and spirit of the commission's rules."
The dissenters said management should have been held responsible for "misrepresentations made on its evening news" and complained that management had "condoned" the practics for most of 1969 or "did not want to uncover the facts about that misconduct."