Cable Companies Warn In Court That AT&T Time Warner Merger Will Be Absolutely Terrible For Competition And Consumers

from the Synergies,-yo dept

AT&T and the Department of Justice are ramping up their legal arguments in court as the DOJ tries to block the company's $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner. While some question the DOJ's real motives in the case (Trump ally Rupert Murdoch has been lobbying against the deal for competitive reasons for a year), consumer advocates agree that the deal will be horrible for consumers and competitors alike. AT&T already has a long, epic history of anti-consumer behavior, and critics charge the greater leverage will only let AT&T jack up licensing costs for competitors trying to compete with AT&T's own streaming services.

To glean support for its unpopular merger, AT&T offered a special deal to 1,000 of its competitors. According to AT&T's proposal, if competitors agreed to support the merger, the company promised send any price disputes with other cable companies to an outside arbitration process. Most competitors were pretty clearly not impressed:

"But thus far, only 2 percent of AT&T's rivals have expressed support for that plan, according to lawyers for both sides. The revelation came as AT&T and the Department of Justice faced off in court Tuesday, the second day of a trial whose consequences will reverberate across the economy. Of the 1,000 letters sent by AT&T to competing TV providers in November notifying them of the proposal, just 20 received a positive response, according to company and government lawyers."

Many of those same competitors have been called to testify against the merger on behalf of the DOJ, and their comments this week were not what you'd call positive. Dish and its subsidiary Sling TV, for example, were quick to argue that AT&T simply has no incentive to offer reasonable licensing terms to streaming competitors like Sling once the deal's done:

If the merger goes through, Time Warner’s incentives change, according to Schlichting. It could demand higher rates or onerous terms, such as requiring Sling to buy more channels, and would be less likely to compromise, he said. Either Dish’s costs would go up, or if there’s no agreement and Turner channels “go dark,” the company would lose subscribers who would likely switch to DirecTV or its DirecTV Now online service, Schlichting argued. Gaining subscribers would be more lucrative for AT&T than programming fees, he said.

“I just don’t see them having any motivation to move” to get to a deal, he said of Time Warner.

Cable competitor Cox Communications had similar words of warning, noting that AT&T's promise for outside arbitration was a "little bit of gamesmanship," and that losing access to needed content soon to be owned by AT&T could "significantly impact the viability of our business model." DOJ lawyers have warned that if the AT&T Time Warner deal is allowed to proceed, consumer bills could skyrocket to the tune of $436 million annually. Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term net neutrality, put things rather succinctly in a New York Times piece this week:

"The (DOJ $436 estimate underestimates) the full costs of this merger to the American public. What we really have here is a brazen effort to prolong the life of a dying business model — “full-service” pay TV — by making “cord-cutting” more expensive, and thereby strangling a revolution in internet television that remains in its toddlerhood. Even worse, greenlighting the deal could set off a domino effect."

While some of these potential pitfalls can be stymied by conditions, meaningful conditions haven't been a strong suit for either party of U.S. governance. More often than not, the companies merging volunteer their own conditions routinely made up of "goals" they would have accomplished anyway. While politicians pretend to be holding these companies' feet to the fire for political brownie points, enforcement is routinely non-existent. As a result, merged companies (especially in the traditionally regulatory capture protected cable and broadband industries) still somehow fail to adhere to them.

Years go by, everybody forgets, the harms of such vertical integration are either ignored or downplayed; rinse wash and repeat. Of course given that AT&T is on the cusp of successfully killing net neutrality, the end result of this merger could prove extra problematic. AT&T has been given the green light for an ocean of "creative" anti-competitive behaviors that could make life particularly difficult for streaming competitors, whether that comes in the form of zero rating AT&T's own content (while still counting competitor's traffic against AT&T caps), or by simply prioritizing the content of AT&T or its deepest-pocketed allies.

In short, the deal is likely to jack up the costs for competitors (which get passed on to you) at the same time we remove valuable safeguards protecting the health of the internet and the ability to compete on a semi-level playing field. All so a company with a long, long history of behaving badly can have more power over multiple markets. What could possibly go wrong?

Filed Under: antitrust, cable, competition, merger, tv
Companies: at&t, cox, dish, time warner


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Mar 2018 @ 12:39pm

    Re: Re:

    WTF? You really thought he was referring to a medical condition when he wrote "two faced"? That is so stupid that you should probably have yourself checked for a medical condition.

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