The Federal Communications Commission yesterday threatened to deny one or more of CBS' five owned-and-opearted television stations its customary three-year license renewal after concluding that CBS had "deceived the public" in its promotion of so-called winner-take-all tennis matches.
But the commission withheld assessment of any penalty against CBS and gave the network 30 days "to submit any data showing grounnndns for possible mitigation."
The FCC said that "none of the four tennis matches (held between 1975 and 1977 and featuring Jimmy Connors) actually was "winner-take-all" in the sense that the loser received either nothing or merely out-of-pocket expenses." Before the second match, it added, "CBS knew that each losing player was assured of at least $150,000, but despite this knowledge CBS used the phrase "winner-take-all". . . ."
The commission added that "its investigation also indicated that [Robert] Wussler [who resigned Wednesday as president of CBS Sports] made several inaccurate statements to its investigatorsss, concerning complimentary services from Caesars Palace, the Las Vegas hotel where three of the matches were held.
FCC Chairman Charles Ferris said yesterdy of the commission's action that this "apparently is the first time this type of procedure of accountability of the networks" had been employed. "Normally the remedy has been a letter of admonition."
Bill Leonard, CBS vice president in Washington, issued a one-sentence statement that said: "Throughout the investigation, both with Congress and the FCC, CBS has cooperated fully and we will continue to do so."
Another CBS official, Jack Loftus, director of government and media relations, called the FCC's action "a very serious situation," but said it was too soon to say what further information CBS would give the commission.
The FCC, saying that less than full renewal of the network's station licenses "might very well be appropriate," asked CBS for "any information on the steps it had taken to insure that such activities could not occur as well as what actions had been taken or would be taken to correct the deception of the public." Ferris said the renewal of CBS' license to operate KNXT in Los Angeles will be up for FCC approval next month.
The license could be renewed for less than three years, or at all.
In what appeared to be a pointed rebuttal of testimony given by Wussler to the commission, the FCC said, "Wussler stated that he did not knowingly receive complimentary room, food and beverages from Caesars Palace for the Connors-Newcombe match, whereas evidence appeared to indicate that he knew he had received such service without charge."
The FCC also said "evidence indicated that, contrary to his statements, Wussler may have been aware that other CBS employes were receiving similar consideration from the hotel.
"On another occasion," the FCC went on, "Wussler may have been informed of the true financial terms of the compensation agreement between (former Connors business manager Bill) Riordan and Connors before the third match - an agreement guaranteeing Connore $500,000 for participating, win or lose.
"The evidence," the FCC concluded, "appears to support the assertion of Connors' lawyer that he told Wussler the true financial details shortly before the third match."
Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on communications, who had criticized CBS officials' testimony on the Hill last November, said yesterday he was told there had been some "deception of the commission as well as the public. That's probably what vexed them [the FCC commissioners] most. They expected straight answers and didn't always get them."
Wussler said last nigth that any comments concerning his reaction to the FCC's statement will be handling the collecting of responses" and that "we plan to reply as we always do."
CBS' Loftus, asked if meetings would begin immediately to determine the network's response, said, "You bet your a- there are going to be meetings."