Mergers: Is Trump meddling in AT&T–Time Warner deal?
It seems like a match made in corporate heaven, said Brian Fung in The Washington Post. The telecom giant AT&T wants to buy Time Warner, the entertainment empire that owns HBO, Warner Bros., and Turner Broadcasting, “to build an advertising and content behemoth.” But last week, after months of scrutiny by government regulators, the $85 billion merger “went from looking like a done deal to something much less certain.” The Justice Department has reportedly told the companies it will sue to block the merger unless Time Warner sells Turner Broadcasting, whose holdings include CNN, or AT&T sells DirecTV, one of the nation’s largest pay-TV providers. The regulators’ reported focus on a CNN sale in talks has sparked fears that President Trump, who has long derided the network as “fake news,” “was punishing the company for its critical coverage of his administration,” said Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. The new conditions do seem “fishy”: Makan Delrahim, the new head of antitrust at Justice, said last year that the merger was acceptable. Now that he’s working for Trump, “he has changed his mind.”
What makes the demand to sell CNN “chilling” is that it “seemed to come out of the blue,” said Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times. There’s also no real “compelling legal justification” for it. The AT&T–Time Warner deal is what’s known as a vertical merger, in which the assets of the two companies do not directly compete. Such mergers, because they don’t eliminate a competitor, have typically sailed through the approval process. AT&T distributes content via its TV and internet providers, while Time Warner creates content through its film and TV studios. Selling CNN and other Turner properties wouldn’t substantially change the mix. The administration’s motives seem suspect, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial, particularly because Trump appointees have spent the past 10 months “removing barrier after barrier to companies growing larger and more dominant in their markets.” There might be legitimate reasons to block this merger, but “it’s impossible to tell whether the Justice Department is being principled or a puppet.”
Regulators aren’t going far enough: “The companies shouldn’t be allowed to combine at all,” said Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. AT&T is already the country’s biggest provider of pay TV and the third-largest provider of internet service, so it controls the media pipeline into many Americans’ homes. If it also owned Time Warner’s massive entertainment catalog, there’d be a real danger that it would “use that power to steer its customers to its own content and degrade or block competing material.” We’ve seen this before: Bloomberg fought Comcast for two years—and won at the FCC—after the cable provider buried Bloomberg’s news channel in “a hard-to-find ghetto on its programming grid,” ostensibly to boost MSNBC and other cable news channels it owned. For the past 30 years, antitrust law has been focused on one question, said Joe Nocera in Bloomberg.com. “Is the merger harmful to the consumer?” If not, “the merger gets through.” Trump’s fixation on CNN has complicated matters. “No matter where Justice comes down on the deal, the odor of politics will always hang over its decision.”