An official of American Broadcasting Co. contacted two members of the Federal Communications Commission only days before the agency was scheduled to consider a controversial staff proposal to discipline ABC's largest television station, WABC-TV, Channel 7, in New York.
Commission lawyers said they believe that the discussions did not violate FCC rules, but the agency's staff decided to delay the commission's vote on WABC to inform several groups in New Jersey that are contesting a renewal of WABC-TV's broadcasting license. Commission officials expect the WABC license to be reconsidered in mid-July.
FCC sources say that Eugene S. Cowen, ABC's vice president for government relations, met with FCC Commissioners Anne P. Jones and Henry M. Rivera to argue against the staff's recommendation that WABC's license not be renewed for the full three-year term.
Commission sources say the staff had recommended that the license be renewed for a shorter time period to put the station on notice that the FCC would be monitoring its actions carefully.
The staff recommendation to limit the renewal--which sources say FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler also strongly opposed--stems from a 1981 incident in which WABC employes were found to have written fraudulent letters--ostensibly from viewers--to several public-affairs shows.
After an internal investigation, WABC fired the key employes involved and reprimanded more than a dozen others.
Nonetheless, the FCC staff reportedly wants continued monitoring of the station because of the earlier actions, sources said.
According to commission sources, Cowen and an ABC lawyer called Rivera and Jones on Monday to argue against the staff recommendation, which had been scheduled for a commission vote on Wednesday.
Cowen declined to comment yesterday.
Commission rules forbid television station licensees from contacting commissioners about challenges to license renewals made by other contestants. In the WABC case--as well as for other New York City television stations--the licenses were being challenged by the New Jersey Coalition for Fair Broadcasting, which repeatedly has objected to the lack of coverage of New Jersey politics and public affairs by New York and Philadelphia television stations.
But according to sources, Cowen was not visiting the commissioners to talk about this challenge, but rather about the staff recommendation for a short-term license.
FCC lawyers said it is not improper for licensees to contact commissioners to discuss staff investigations, such as those into WABC. As a result, they said they don't believe any sanctions are required against WABC.
"We don't have any reason to believe that anyone intended to violate the law," one commission lawyer said.