The Washington Star's owners plan to trade WMAL-TV for an Oklahoma City television station in a more than $65 million deal designed to save the deficit-plagued Star newspaper from possible financial collapse, corporate officials announced yesterday.
Under the terms of the complex, 20-year agreement made public yesterday, millions of dollars would be pumped annually into Washington Star Communications, Inc., the newspaper's parent corporation - apparently enough to offset the Star's continuing losses.
Washington Star chairman Joe L. Allbritton was quoted yesterday as saying he intends to keep the newspaper afloat. "This deal makes that possible," Star communications director Steve Richard said, describing Allbrition's views on the transaction. Allbrition himself was unavailable for further comment.
The deal between The Star and the Phoenix-based Combined Communications Corp., owner of the Oklahoma City station, was described by industry analysts yesterday as the biggest sale of a single station in broadcast history. The amount of the deal was exceeded six years ago, however, by a $110 million purchase of three television stations in Philadelphia, New Haven, Conn., and Fresno, Calif., in one consolidated transaction.
If the Washington Star's new agreement is approved by the Federal Communications Commission, WMAL-TV will be taken over through a merger by Combined Communications, a 9-year-old company that now owns seven television stations, seven radio stations, 10 outdoor advertising operations, and the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper. None of the current Combined Communications enterprises is in the Washington.
In exchange for WMAL-TV, said to be a higly profitable station in recent years, the Star's owners would be given KOCO-TV, the American Broadcasting Co. affiliate in Oklahoma City, as well as $65 million worth of dividends-paying stock in Combined Communications. Under the agreement, Combined Communications would eventually buy back all the Star corporation's 650,000 shares of preferred, nonvoting stock in the Phoenix-based company.
As a result of an FFC ruling, the Star's owners are required to divest themselves of all but one of their communications enterprises in the Washington area by January, 1979. The ruling stems from an FCC effort to bring about gradually more diversified local ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations throughout the U.S.
The deal to swap WMAL-TV for KOCO-TV appears to represent the last major step in revamping the Star corporation to comply with the FCC decision. In a sale announced last September, the American Broadcasting Company agreed to buy the two WMAL radio stations here, AM and FM, for $16 million.
Star Communications is also required to divest itself of one of its two broadcast stations in Lynchburg, VA. - WLVA-AM or WLVA-TV, Star officials said yesterday that an agreement "in principle" has already been reached to sell WLVA-AM. The prospective purchaser was not identified.
The television station swap announced yesterday appeared unlikely to have an immediate impact on the operations or management of WMAL-TV. Combined Communications has a reputation for granting considerable autonomy to its broadcast station.
Tom Cookerly, WMAL-TV's executive vice president and general manager, said yesterday that he foresaw no change in programming and had been told he would remain as general manager, Ray Cox, vice president for corporate relations would be made until after an FCC-required survey of how well the station meets Washington's needs is carried out.
WMAL-TV's name is expected soon to be change to WJLA-TV. Ironically, the new call letters will be Allbritton's initials.
While no official figures are available, knowledgeable broadcast and newspaper is now losing about $500,000 a month, or $6 million annually. WMAL-TV's yearly profits are estimated to be between $3 million and $6 million. KOCO-TV is thought to earn up to $2 million in profits annually, according to these analysts.
In addition to revenues from KOCO-TV, Washington Star Communications would, under the new agreement, gain yearly income in several ways to fooset the dividends from its Combined Communications stock, payable initially at $3.25 million annyally.
Star Communication would also get $65 million within 20 years through Combined Communications' repurchase of its stock. Allbritton also promised an additional infusion of cash for the newspaper.
Tax questions apparently played a key role in the complexity of the WMAL deal, though no clear explanation of its tax remifications was given.
One legal issue confronting the FCC in reviewing the proposed station swap is whether the Star corporation may retain stock in the Phoenix company that will control WMAL-TV. An FCC attorney said yesterday that this would probably not impede the deal because only novoting stock is involved.