One of the most fiercely fought legal battles in American broadcast history is nearing an end. And one of New England's oldest television stations -- WNAC-TV (Channel 7) Boston -- could be plunged into temporary darkness as a result.
At issue is a US Court of Appeals ruling upholding a June 1980 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision denying renewal of the station's valuable license to RKO General Inc. and mandating that the firm terminate its operation of the TV outlet.
The controversial move stems from an FCC determination that the station's owner is ''unfit'' because of questionable business practices by officials of its parent firm, General Tire & Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, and a lack of candor in its 1976 application for license renewal.
At that time, company officials failed to disclose a then-ongoing investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission involving General Tire and charges of improper use of funds for domestic political campaigns.
The 30-day deadline for RKO General to quit Channel 7, which US Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan refused to extend or set aside Feb. 5, expires March 7.
But RKO General, operators of Channel 7 since its inception in June 1948, is continuing its 13-year battle to keep it. Officials of the firm are seeking a Supreme Court review of the FCC action. It is uncertain, however, whether the nine justices will agree to take up the matter. But if they should, it would likely mean no final decision until next year.
Equally unclear and of perhaps considerably greater importance to eastern Massachusetts viewers is what is to happen to Channel 7: Will it go dark in early March?
While those close to the scene generally doubt the FCC will let the station to ''go dark'' even for a few days, most say they do not know how it will be kept operating. Although declining to speculate what might happen, Stephen Sharp , general counsel for the FCC, says he knows of no instance where a TV station has been terminated before a successor licensee could take over.
In the absence of a court stay of the approaching deadline, the FCC appears to have three alternatives: (1) go to the appeals court that enforced the off-the-air-in-30-days mandate and seek a time extension; (2) give the license to another operator; or (3) choose an interim licensee.
Ten years ago when Boston's Channel 5 was taken from its original licensee and given to another firm, Boston Broadcasters, the latter, once selected, had time to construct facilities before the former operator exhausted its appeals.
The New England Television Corporation (NETC), whose principals have been contesting RKO General's Channel 7 license for more than a decade, has neither transmitter nor other facilities needed to begin operations were its license application hustled through and approved.
In opposing a further stay of the license termination, NETC argues that ''good cause does not exist'' to justify such an extension ''because RKO seeks not to protect the public from injury but merely to prolong its profitable operation'' of Channel 7. (The nearly 34-year-old station is a Columbia Broadcasting System outlet.)
Negotiations for NETC to purchase the RKO General property for $54 million fell through last fall.
Unless RKO General succeeds in reversing the FCC denial of its license renewal, the firm stands to lose one of its most profitable operations, worth in the open market in excess of $100 million. (WCVB-TV, one of Boston's two other major television stations is in the process of being sold to Metro Media Inc. for $220 million.)
In its June 1980 crackdown against RKO, the FCC, in what is believed to be the harshest disciplinary action in its nearly half century of regulating the broadcasting industry, ordered the firm to give up not only WNAC-TV Boston but also KHJ-TV in Los Angeles, and WOR-TV in New York. But the federal appeals court in its decision last December returned the question of continued licensing of the latter two stations to the FCC for further consideration.
The RKO broadcast empire also includes a Memphis TV station and 12 radio stations across the US, including WRKO-AM and WROR-FM in Boston, none of which are, or were, involved in the license litigation.