Washington Star Communications Chairman Joe L. Allbritton yesterday canceled his deal to swap WJLA-TV for an Oklahoma City television station and $55 million in stock.
Federal Communications Commission officials said the decision could force Allbritton to give up his job as publisher of The Star by the end of the year unless he finds another buyer for the Washington Channel 7 television station before then.
Allbritton was not available for comment.
Allbritton last week completed sale of the Star to Time Inc., but said he would remain publisher of the newspaper.
Even though he has sold the Star, remaining publisher while he is owner of the television station would violate the FCC's rule banning cross ownership of media in the same market, FCC officials said.
The cross ownership rule "says own, operate or control, and being publisher would be operating," said FCC Commissioner Abbott M. Washburn.
In 1975, when Allbritton acquired Washington Star Communications Ind. - then owners of the Star and WJLA - the FCC gave him a three-year deadline for disposing of one or the other, Washburn said. "He has up to Dec. 31, 1978 either to find another buyer or to stop being publisher."
A similar analysis came from Stephen Sharp, legal assistant to FCC Commissioner Margita E. White. "As we understand it, in his role as publisher he controls the Star. He either has to get rid of his role or he has to get rid of the station."
A spokesman for Allbritton, Steve Richard, said he "could not speculate" about whether Allbritton would try to find another buyer for the television station.
Richard released the text of a letter sent yesterday by Allbritton to Karl Eller, president of Combined Communications Inc. of Phoenix, Ariz. Eller and Allbritton had agreed to swap WJLA for KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City and $55 million in Combined stock.
The FCC had approved the swap twice, but the decision has been appealed to the federal courts by a coalition of citizens' groups opposed to the sale.
"You have said you do not want to consummate the transaction unless the court has ruled on the matter," Allbritton wrote Eller.
"Rather than prolong the present state of uncertainty concerning our proposed transaction, the most practical course of action under the circumstances is to terminate the agreement."
"I regret that so many complications and delays have prevented our companies from carrying out the intended transaction." Allbritton's letter added.
The FCC decision allowing the sale was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals by the D.C. Media Task Force, the Adams Morgan Organization, the D.C. Chapter of the National Organization for Women and the National Black Media Coalition.
The contended that the station should be sold to minority buyers and said the arrangement between Allbritton and Combined did not actually separate ownership of the newspaper and television station.
Allbritton's contract with Combined would have given him stock in the company that owned that was worth $55 million and would have paid $3.5 million a year in dividends.
He had told the FCC that the arrangement was necessary to keep the Star alive and that dividends and cash income from KOCO-TV was needed to assure continued publication of the Star.
The FCC approved the swap on Jan. 12, then voted to reconsider after it was announced Feb. 3 that the Star would be sold to Time Inc. for $20 million in cash and assumption of $8 million in debts. On March 10, the FCC again approved the sale by a 5-to-2 vote.
The commissioners who opposed the sale, Tyrone Brown and Joseph R. Fogarty, said at the time that they objected to Allbritton's owning the Combined stock. Several of the commissioners who voted for the sale warned Allbritton that he might eventually be forced to sell the stock. The broadcasting regulatory agency is in the midst of tightening its rules on cross ownership.
Allbritton has said that he decided to sell the Star because of the possibility he might have to give up the Combined stock.
Allbritton's letter to Eller cited specific provisions of the contract providing for cancellation of the agreement.