UPDATED 5:34 PM: Comcast has issued a statement on the FCC’s decision. “We are disappointed that the FCC failed to constrain the Media Bureau’s overly broad construction of the News Neighborhooding Condition,” says Sena Fitzmaurice, the company’s VP Government Communications. “As it is currently being interpreted, the condition goes well beyond the express language of the FCC’s Comcast-NBCUniversal Order and what is justified by the evidence in that case. The FCC’s interpretation very likely will lead to significant and unwarranted burdens on us, our customers, and other programming networks. We are evaluating our options.”
PREVIOUSLY: Bloomberg TV prevailed on the main points in its multi-year dispute with Comcast, although it didn’t win everything it wanted. Regulators upheld an order from their Media Bureau last year that established Bloomberg’s right to be grouped with other news channels on the dials of Comcast’s cable systems in the 35 largest TV markets. The FCC decision hearkens to an agreement that Comcast made in 2011 when it was eager to win FCC approval for its deal to control NBCUniversal. The cable giant said it wouldn’t discriminate against competitors. Bloomberg TV said that’s exactly what Comcast did when it maintained the business news channel’s position far from CNBC — which Comcast acquired with the NBCU deal.
For example, in Hartford, CT, Bloomberg was on channel 178 while CNBC was on channel 60. Since lots of people still flip the dial when looking for something to watch, the decision says that Comcast can’t isolate Bloomberg TV if a system has a so-called news “neighborhood” — defined as at least four news services within five adjacent channel numbers. “With this Order, we ensure that Comcast treats Bloomberg Television comparably to its affiliated news channels,” Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn says. ”This will allow Bloomberg Television to compete on an equal footing with its Comcast-affiliated competitors.” The ruling also gives Bloomberg the right to have its HD channel in a news neighborhood if one exists for other HD services. The FCC rejected Comcast’s argument that it has a First Amendment right to decide where to position channels.
But regulators disagreed with Bloomberg’s claim that it deserves to be placed near CNBC or the most popular news channels if there’s more than one news neighborhood. For example, Comcast could have separate groups for high- and low-rated channels. That “gives Comcast a measure of flexibility and the editorial discretion to manage its lineup obligations and protects Bloomberg Television from discriminatory placement,” the decision says.
Commissioner Ajit Pai dissented in part from the ruling. He says that it may require Comcast to “alter the lineup of almost every system in the country to cluster Bloomberg (and other independent news channels) into a news neighborhood.” In addition, Bloomberg may find that the cure is “worse than the disease.” Comcast has the flexibility to cluster Bloomberg with channels that few people watch including C-SPAN, C-SPAN2, and C-SPAN3. “As such, the news-neighborhood condition is unlikely to ‘protect unaffiliated news channels’ in any meaningful way.”
Bloomberg Head of Government Affairs Greg Babyak says that “The Commission was correct in January 2011, when it deemed the condition necessary to ensure that the merger was in the public interest. The Commission is correct today, in moving to keep the important promise it made to the public.”