Washington's television, radio and newspaper outlets, beset by economic and regulatory crosscurrents, have entered a time of rapid ownership changes, capped by the proposed sale of The Washington Star to Time Inc.
Two of the area's three network affiliates - WJLA-TV and WTOP-TV - have been swapped for out-of-town television stations under tentative agreements with their prospective new owners. An independent UHF station, WDCA-TV (Channel 20), also is the subject of a pending sale. The ownership of more than a half-dozen local AM and FM radio stations has changed in recent years.
Analysts of the broadcast and newspaper industries give two principal reasons for the surge of ownership switches. One of the attractiveness to communications firms of the affluent Washington market. The other entails new developments in federal regulations governing broadcast media ownership.
"The Washington market is an attractive one and entities want to get into it," said Sol Taishoff, founder and editor of Broadcasting magazine, in an interview yesterday. "There is a tendency in the broadcasting business to trade up, to improve your situation."
In addition, Federal Communications Commission regulations and an appeals court decision that could result in even stiffer FCC rules have played a key part in some of the recent shifts, including moves to sell broadcast outlets owned by the parent corporations of The Washington Star and The Washington Post.
The U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled last March that no company may own both a newspaper and a broadcasting station in the same city unless such combined ownership is found to be clearly in the public interest. The ruling, which has stirred concern throughout the industries, has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. If upheld, it would significantly broaden current FCC ownership limits.
The changes in broadcast station and newspaper ownership in the Washington area and elsewhere have stirred concern, complaints and some pessimism among some researchers and media critics, who are troubled by what they view as increasing dominance by large corporations and loss of local ties and independence among television and radio stations and newspapers.
"One of the things that's bothering people about the media is that it is getting so big," Julius Duscha, director of the Washington Journalism Center, remarked yesterday. "One of the dangers ahead is that a lot of people say we ought to control the press more because they say it's so monopolized."
The proposed sale of The Washington Star to the billion-dollar Time Inc. publishing firm was announced Friday "in principle." Under the terms of the prospective deal, Star chairman Joe L. Allbritton a millionaire Texas banker who took over the foundering newspaper four years ago, would be paid $20 million. In addition, Time Inc. would assume The Star's multimillion-dollar debts, including an $8 million mortgage.
Allbritton said he expects the deal to be completed on Feb. 19, though Time officials appear to be more cautious about its timing. Allbritton would stay on at The Star, he said, in the salaried position of publisher for at least five years.
Albert Warren, publisher of Television Digest, a weekly trade newsletter, said in a telephone interview yesterday that Allbritton's agreement to sell The Star may cast some doubt on the FCC's decision last month allowing Allbritton to swap Star-affiliated WJLA-TV for an Oklahoma City television station. A key factor in the FCC decision was its belief that authorizing the swap would allow Allbritton to keep The Star afloat.
Warren said the newsletter interviewed FCC staff members who agreed to discuss the Star deal if their identities were withheld. Warren described the FCC staffers as angry. "They feel like they've been taken," he said. Initially, the FCC staffers told the newsletter, Allbritoon had asked permission for the television trade to help save The Star. "Then he turns around and sells it," Warren said.
Television Digest will publish an account of the FCC staff's reaction Monday, Warren said.
Despite the numerous ownership changes here at broadcast and newspaper companies, it remains unclear whether the contents and format of local newspapers and radio and television programs will be significantly altered.
"Much will remain the same," Lawrence B. Taishoff, publisher of Broadcasting Magazine and son of the magazine's founder, commented yesterday. One exception, he and others added, however, may be WDCA-TV, which is expected to undergo significant changes if its sale to the aggressive Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, goes through.