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OWN launch shows channel position isn't everything

January 3, 2011 |  4:35 pm

A big concern from rival programmers about the proposed merger between Comcast Corp. and NBC Universal is that the combined entity will have the power and motivation to harm its competition.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of the pairing of the nation's biggest cable and broadband provider with a programing giant whose holdings include the NBC broadcast network and several strong cable channels including USA, Bravo and Oxygen.

But the strong numbers for the debut of OWN, the cable network launched by Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications, could throw cold water on one of the conditions on the deal that a chief rival is seeking.

Bloomberg Media LP, the business news conglomerate that owns Bloomberg Television, which competes with both NBC Universal's CNBC and News Corp.'s Fox Business, has aggressively lobbied the Federal Communications Commission that any approval of the Comcast-NBC Universal deal should be conditioned on Comcast agreeing to carry similar channels in the same "neighborhood" on the TV dial. In other words, if CNBC is Channel 17, then Bloomberg should be in a channel close to that. The logic being that if a competitor is at one end of the dial and you are at the other, you are disadvantaged.

No doubt having a good position on the dial is a big help. But it is not necessarily the deciding factor. Whether OWN is ultimately successful won't be known for years, but the channel was able to get sampled despite a less than ideal channel position.

OWN took the slot that had been occupied by Discovery Health. In Los Angeles, on Time Warner Cable, OWN was Channel 219. It was surrounded by other Discovery networks, including the Military Channel and Green, its environment channel. While Winfrey may have followers who are environmentalists, she probably doesn't have too many military buffs tuning in.

OWN's primary audience is women 25-54. Other channels that aim at that demographic, including Lifetime and Bravo, have much better slots on the dial. Lifetime is at 47 and Bravo is 76. Oxygen and WE, which also cater toward women, are lower on the dial compared to OWN.

Of course, Winfrey had a huge promotional push behind her launch and tons of media coverage. Not every network launching will be as fortunate. However, given that Bloomberg founder Michael Bloomberg is one of the richest men in the world and the company is hugely successful, it too could shout loud for attention. As Winfrey showed, if you hype it, they will come.

This doesn't mean that Comcast should relocate all of the competitors to NBC Universal once the deal closes or suddenly move all its channels to lower spots on the dial. That could certainly be interpreted as anti-competitve behavior.

At the same time, it may be a reach to require Comcast to move rival channels around as part of its merger either. Channels will work anywhere if people want its content. Fox News has a great position on the Los Angeles cable system, but if for some reason it was suddenly relocated from Channel 32 to 64, odds are its audience would find it.

In Washington, D.C., where Comcast is the cable operator, all the VHF broadcast stations have long had channel positions between 20 and 29 for some reason instead of between 2 and 13, which is where they are on the broadcast dial. Even though most cable operators give broadcasters the same channel on the cable system that they have over the air, people in Washington are still able to find the Redskins games and local news.

There was a time when people were more passive when it came to watching television, but that was when they had to get up from the couch to change the channel. Today's TV viewers, especially those younger than 35, grew up with cable and are used to searching for content. While that doesn't mean a good channel position won't help, it is not as crucial to survival as it once was.

More important than where a channel is on the Comcast dial is making sure a channel has a fair shot to get on the dial after this deal closes, and that is what regulators should make a primary focus.

— Joe Flint

Related Post: OWN has strong debut.