Comcast Says It’s Not Talking to Apple About Apple TV, Because Apple Hasn’t Asked

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Apple is talking to TV programmers about a new Web TV service it would like to launch this year. But for now, it’s not talking to NBCUniversal, the company that owns NBC and a host of high-profile cable channels.

That’s not because the programmer doesn’t want to be part of the service, says NBCUniversal* owner Comcast — it’s because Apple hasn’t approached them.

Comcast acknowledged its non-talks with Apple yesterday in a letter it sent to the Federal Communications Commission as part of its effort to acquire Time Warner Cable. The letter is a response to a filing from Stop Mega Comcast, a coalition opposed to the deal.

Stop Mega Comcast’s note, filed on Wednesday, said, “Comcast may be withholding affiliated NBCUniversal (“NBCU”) content in an effort to thwart the entry of potential new video competitors.” The note cited a recent Wall Street Journal report that said Apple wasn’t talking to NBCUniversal because of a “falling-out between Apple and NBCUniversal parent company Comcast.”

That’s a bit right but mostly wrong, Comcast attorney Francis Buono wrote to the FCC: “Not only has NBCUniversal not ‘withheld’ programming from Apple’s new venture, Apple has not even approached NBCUniversal with such a request.” I’ve asked Apple for comment.

Public acknowledgement that something isn’t happening doesn’t often qualify as news. But this is Apple, and Apple TV, so there you go. As far as I know, no one that is involved in the talks has acknowledged them publicly, so file this in the “better than absolutely nothing” cabinet.

As I wrote in February, Apple wants programmers to help it create a TV subscription service that it would sell directly to consumers over the Web. The idea is to build a “skinny bundle” of channels that would include some, but not all, of the channels offered in traditional pay TV offerings.

Dish’s Sling TV already sells a $20-a-month version of this concept that includes ESPN, AMC, CNN and more than a dozen other channels. Sony’s Vue, which is rolling out now, does the same thing but starts at $50 a month. Sony’s package includes NBCUniversal channels but doesn’t include ESPN or any other channels owned by Disney.

The channel lineup Apple is seeking for its would-be service is one of many details that remains unclear to the TV industry, including some of the executives who are talking to Apple.

But just because Apple has yet to talk to NBCUniversal doesn’t mean the programmer won’t show up in an Apple TV service. In fact, even if Apple never approaches NBCUniversal to hammer out a deal, it may be able to force NBCUniversal to hand over its shows for a fee.

In order to get federal blessing for a Comcast NBCUniversal merger back in 2010, the two companies agreed that NBCUniversal would have to license its content to an online distributor if that distributor was able to get deals with NBCUniversal’s competitors.

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