Bloomberg Eyes the West Wing

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America might not be ready for a cable programmer as president – but it looks like Mike Bloomberg is ready to give it a ride.

Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Television network is a relatively small part of his financial news empire, dropped his Republican Party affiliation as a voter. He insists he’s staying mayor of New York City and not running for president. But by Thursday, the news cycle had skipped past the denials to analyze how his aides have been plotting an independent candidacy for two years.

Not so long ago, in 1992, H. Ross Perot took 19% of the popular vote. But he didn’t win a state or electoral vote. This is no easy decision, especially as Perot spent a reported $65 million and Bloomberg would have to spend a lot more than that.

In business, Bloomberg’s shown faith in his own ideas and been rewarded with billions in personal wealth, something many cable moguls can relate to.

Bloomberg L.P.’s main revenue source comes from $1,500 monthly fees for the Bloomberg desktop terminals that provide news and data and analytical tools in some 250,000 locations, such as financial institutions and law firms.

Even with a torrent of free financial news and analysis on the Internet, that part business keeps growing. Fortune, in an April cover story, said Bloomberg posted a gain of 26,000 terminal sales in 2006. That’s eight years after a Fortune story headlined “The Net Could Be Bad News For Bloomberg Desktop Dominion.”

His television network doesn’t get mentioned in the same sentence as CNBC or even the planned Fox Business Channel all that often. But it’s stood the test of time, having launched in 1994, leaving in its wake such rivals as CNNfn. And talk about multitasking: it packs NYSE, NASDAQ, Dow Jones Index and futures tickers onto the same screen while still leaving room for anchors’ talking heads.

Should Bloomberg, a billionaire who financed his own mayoral campaigns, need some help paying for a presidential run, the TV network could provide prospects. According to press releases, Bloomberg Television draws the wealthiest audience of any U.S. programmer, as measured by the Mendelsohn Affluent Survey. In 2005, Bloomberg viewers averaged $180,000 in household income.

As a New York City resident for 10 years plus, I give him credit for doing a lot of things right and not much wrong. One early gesture stands out: he quietly removed the concrete barriers that separated Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence, from the surrounding park. They reflected a bunker mentality that the city needed to move past.

Bloomberg declared he plans to remain mayor at a press conference about another good idea he had – the “311” system for residents to call in complaints or get information about city services.

I talked to another cable guy, Ned Lamont, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut in 2006. He won the primary on a strong anti-Iraq-war campaign, but lost to incumbent Joseph Lieberman, who ran as an independent, in the general election.

“The more the merrier,” he said of Bloomberg’s possible run. “Shake it up, I say.”

Lamont thinks Bloomberg will wait until February and see if the front-loaded primary system has produced any strong compelling candidates. If they haven’t, he’ll jump in. “And he can afford to do.”

Bloomberg has earned respect by getting things done, according to Lamont, whose company, Lamont Digital Systems, provides TV programming to college campuses. The city took control of the school system, as one example, and made reforms after Guiliani tried to do that for eight years.

But especially as an outsider, Bloomberg must give voters a strong, compelling reason to pick him. “I did a campaign that came out of nowhere and I had some overriding issues, and it gave me some traction,” Lamont said. “For Mike Bloomberg, it’s not going to be strong enough [to say] ‘I’m exceedingly competent’ or ‘I’m tired of Washington insiders making a mess of things’ or whatever his theme is going to be. I think he’s going to have to distinguish himself on one or two issues that the mainstream parties aren’t addressing in a serious way, and I haven’t heard that yet.”

There’s plenty of time for that, though, as Bloomberg, the billionaire cable programmer, plots his next big investment.