RKO General TV license revocations: Could history repeat itself with News Corp.?


RBR-TVBR News Analysis: As News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch tackles the scandal in London at the company’s News of the World paper of allegations of widespread voicemail-hacking from its journalists (which could jeopardize his plan to take over the British broadcaster BSkyB), there has been some discussion how the problems of News Corp. might have an impact upon its FCC licenses here in the states if the company is found guilty of criminal offenses in the U.K. 

It’s a bit of a long shot to speculate, but we recall over 30 years ago, RKO General—then a major radio and TV owner—had three of its TV licenses revoked.  The major reason involved the payment of bribes to foreign officials to win contracts for another division of RKO’s corporate parent—General Tire. The FCC stripped RKO of WNAC-TV’s Boston license on June 6, 1980, finding that RKO “lacked the requisite character” to be the station’s licensee. Factors in the decision were the reciprocal trade practices of the 1960s, false financial filings by RKO, and the gross misconduct admitted to by General Tire.

In the course of the WNAC-TV hearings, RKO had withheld evidence of General Tire’s misconduct, including the fact that the SEC had begun an investigation of the company in 1976. RKO also denied that it had improperly reported exchanges of broadcast time for various services, despite indications to the contrary in General Tire’s 1976 annual report. The FCC consequently found that RKO had displayed a “persistent lack of candor” regarding its own and General Tire’s misdeeds, thus threatening “the integrity of the Commission’s processes.” The FCC ruling meant that RKO lost the KHJ-TV LA and WOR-TV NYC licenses as well.

Meanwhile, News International chief Rebekah Brooks said more revelations may emerge in comments to News of the World staff: “Eventually it will come out why things went wrong and who is responsible. That will be another very difficult moment in this company’s history,” Brooks said on Friday, according to Sky News.

Murdoch has brushed off calls for Brooks to resign due to her editorship of News of the World at a time when many of the alleged hacking incidents were taking place. She denies knowing of the practice during her watch. Murdoch said on 7/9 she had his “total” support. “I’m not throwing innocent people under the bus.”

RBR-TVBR observation: We in the industry tend to forget that the FCC has revoked the licenses of some major market TV stations for what were relatively small foreign criminal activities. The fact that News Corp. is moving quickly to address the situation—first by shutting down News of The World—would indicate the company and Murdoch are being as forthright as possible in working with authorities to get to the bottom of the mess. If the whole situation ends up not being handled properly from here on out—and there’s any evidence of cover-ups and lies from this point on—we might see the FCC get “interested.”