Current TV watching Comcast-Bloomberg fight closely
Bloomberg and Comcast are not the only interested parties watching to see how the Federal Communications Commission resolves their feud over where Bloomberg's business news channel should be placed on Comcast's cable systems.
Also paying close attention to whether the FCC orders Comcast to move Bloomberg closer to CNBC -- the dominant financial news channel now owned by Comcast -- is Current TV, the little cable network founded by former Vice President Al Gore that this week debuts a show from vitriolic commentator Keith Olbermann.
The Comcast-Bloomberg fight stems from from Bloomberg's desire to have its cable channel -- Bloomberg TV -- next to or near CNBC. In a complaint filed with the FCC last week, Bloomberg claimed that the regulatory agency's January order approving Comcast's deal to acquire a majority stake in CNBC parent NBCUniversal requires the cable giant to place independent news outlets such as Bloomberg TV on a channel next to or very near CNBC.
Comcast countered that it has a different interpretation of the FCC's conditions and that it is in compliance with the government.
Current TV is watching the proceedings because it has ambitions of becoming a news channel. The hiring of Olbermann, who besides hosting a new version of "Countdown" also serves as chief news officer for the cable channel,is seen as the first step in creating a network to rival MSNBC, the channel of choice for left wingers.
Of course, Current TV has a long way to go before it can call itself a news channel. It has its fair share of serious programs -- including its newsmagazine "Vanguard," which could qualify as news or public affairs -- but it also has shows that, at least based on their titles, sound more appropriate for E! or TLC. Recent programs on Current include "Kill It, Cook It, Eat It," "What Did I Do Last Night" and "Hooked on Danger." Although the last two titles could certainly apply to the lifestyle of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, for now the network is not seen as a rival to CNN, Fox News or MSNBC.
Qualifying as a news channel is just one issue that Current will face in trying to improve its distribution situation from the 60 million homes that get the network. There is also the subject of Current's independence.
Bloomberg's claim for better placement stems from the idea that it is an independent news channel and not part of some larger media giant with holdings in content and distribution. Current will argue the same thing.
But Comcast actually owns a 5% to 10% stake in Current. Satellite broadcaster DirecTV has a similar ownership in Current, according to a document the network filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission when it was planning to go public.
Would Comcast's stake in Current TV be big enough to nullify the FCC's order? Current doesn't think so, a person close to the network said. The agency has said in its rules that an ownership stake of 5% or more is considered an attributable interest, which may support Comcast in trying to make the case that Current is does not meet the criteria of an independent channel.
Comcast does distribute Current, but on a tier that is subscribed to by approximately 12 million of Comcast's roughly 23 million subscribers.
Better placement on Comcast systems is hardly the biggest challenge facing Current. It still has no distribution on Cox, Cablevision or Charter, three of the largest distributors in the country.
If nothing else, a potential feud between Current and Comcast could give Olbermann one more thing to rant about.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Keith Olbermann. Credit: Peter Kramer / Associated Press