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What's Bloomberg's beef with Comcast NBC merger? The TV Dial

Why does Bloomberg, best known for its financial terminals, care about the merger between Comcast and NBC Universal? The television dial.

Specifically, Bloomberg is concerned that a merger of the cable and media giants could relegate rivals -- such as the Bloomberg TV channel -- to cable television’s boonies. The New York-based financial information powerhouse has met with members of the Federal Communications Commission to ask that any approval of the merger come with the condition that Comcast put the Bloomberg TV channel near competitor CNBC.

It may sound like an old media problem, but analysts and legal experts say Bloomberg’s concerns about its television interests point to broader questions about how a combined Comcast-NBC Universal could unfairly use its clout to undercut competitors.

With a legal team that includes a former head of the Federal Communications Commission, Bloomberg has emerged as a powerful voice of opposition to Comcast and NBC’s proposed union, observers said.

“If you have a situation in which the main competition in news, CNBC, and the main distributor, Comcast, merge, they have an incentive to harm Bloomberg,” former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in an interview last week.

Bloomberg, aside from selling its financial terminals, has expanded aggressively with its 24-hour financial news TV channel, its acquisition of BusinessWeek magazine and its expanding online presence. (Bloomberg and The Washington Post have a content-sharing partnership.)

The placement of channels has traditionally been as important to cable shows as the evening lineup for broadcasters. A new channel placed next to standing favorites such as ESPN or CNN, is more likely to draw viewers who are channel surfing with their remote controls.

Comcast says relocating channels isn’t as easy as Bloomberg makes it out to be. In a meeting with FCC media bureau officials last week, Comcast said Bloomberg has enjoyed viewer growth thanks to Comcast’s reach.

“Bloomberg’s naive view is that channel positioning on a grand scale can easily be accomplished by flipping a few switches. No so,” said Comcast’s counsel in a filing to the FCC.

The company said that moving Bloomberg and Fox Business News near CNBC’s channel 39 in Washington, for example, would mean moving the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel from adjacent channels. And that would set off a Rubik’s Cube game of moving parts that would confuse viewers.

Susan Crawford, a communications law professor at Cardozo Law School, said there needs to be guarantees that Comcast won’t purposefully put competitors in hard to reach places on the television dial.

“It takes a billionaire to have the ability to be independent and to want to hang on to that independence in the face of a grinding monopoly of cable power in this country,” said Crawford, who is writing a book on the Comcast-NBC merger.

Other stories of interest:

Merger plans for Comcast ignite television access battle

Comcast offers TV online to its TV subscribers

Allbritton's advertising assault against Comcast merger

Federal review of Comcast NBC merger expected to go into 2011

By Cecilia Kang  | October 26, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
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