You might remember a while back when Comcast dropped the bomb that they wanted to acquire NBC Universal in what sounded like the worst of all possible ideas to anyone who likes how the internet operates. You know…without getting nickel-and-dimed into oblivion. Well, despite a ton of outcry, the FCC (as well as others) went ahead and approved the merger. Like the abusive ex who just wants “one more chance” to prove it’ll be different this time, they decided to believe that a multi-billion dollar company could maintain self-control if they promised to behave. And when has that ever worked?
Bloomberg is the one raising the issue, interestingly enough not over internet issues, but regular ol’ basic cable. They claim that Comcast tends to bundle news-y organizations together on your dial. Channel 36 would be CNN, for example, 37 would be Fox, 38 would be MSNBC, and so on. And according to the complaint, in that ‘neighborhood’ is CNBC, one of Bloomberg TV’s primary competitors, at channel 39. If you were surfing through channels and wanted to watch the news, you could hover in this area and bounce between several news sources. But BloombergTV would be nowhere to be found. They’re all the way up at channel 103, at the nerd table with C-Span 2 and 3. These are the channel allocations in Washington, DC, at least.
Well, the problem with such a system is obvious…if you ever had to channel surf, that is. Admittedly, I’ve all but forgotten the practice, but I was a kid once, same as you. There’s a certain point where you just give up scrolling through the pointless upper channels and pick something to watch. And if there’s similar channels together, you might tend to hover in that area. I recall VH1 and MTV were neighbors when I was growing up. If MTV got boring, you might jump over to VH1 and discover something new. Or discover a show on one of the couple channels in between. It’s kind of a primitive discovery method from a modern day geek’s perspective, but it’s an important one to cable subscribers.
Of course, neighborhooding certain channels and leaving others out isn’t exactly a crime. Unless you’re Comcast. Not only would this be a pretty obvious example of Comcast using their cable bundle powers to give preferential treatment to their own properties, but it’s also in direct violation of the following condition the FCC laid on the merger:
“If Comcast now or in the future carries news and/or business news channels in a neighborhood, defined as placing a significant number or percentage of news and/or business news channels substantially adjacent to one another in a system’s lineup, Comcast must carry all independent news and business news channels in that neighborhood.”
That sounds pretty damn specific.
Bloomberg has only recently filed the formal complaint with the FCC, so we’ll see how this all plays out. Here’s hoping, though, that Comcast gets a pretty swift kick in the nuts on this one. While it’s still ambiguous as to whether or not Comcast is neighborhooding their channels intentionally, as Greg Babyak, head of Government Affairs at Bloomberg said, “if merger conditions are shown to be without meaning, then it becomes impossible for the Commissioners to assess whether moving forward with other mergers is in the public interest.”
Just some food for thought, FCC.