As fixed and wireless broadband growth crawls to a halt and cord cutting begins to hammer TV numbers, incumbent telecom giants have been trying to pivot into the media and advertising game with mixed results. Verizon so far has shelled out billions to acquire aging 90s internet brands Yahoo
, believing this can somehow transform the stodgy duopolist into a sexy, sleeker Facebook and Google competitor. So far these efforts to woo Millennials have been arguably underwhelming
and occassionally comical
, highlighting how innovation and disruption is somewhat foreign to these companies' DNA.
AT&T has decided to follow a similar tack, over the weekend announcing a mammoth $85 billion deal to acquire
Time Warner (not to be confused with Time Warner Cable) and its media properties (CNN, HBO). AT&T was quick to proclaim that the deal would be a "perfect match of two companies with complementary strengths," who can bring a "fresh approach to how the media and communications industry works for customers, content creators, distributors and advertisers." The deal comes not too long after AT&T decided to spend $79 billion to acquire DirecTV, adding notable debt for the already giant company.
AT&T's decision to announce the deal now signals that it believes, or has been directly told, that regulators (both the tail end of Wheeler's term and his replacement in the new year) would look kindly upon such a deal. But given AT&T's long, rich history of aggressive anti-consumer behavior (and just blatant lying
to prop up past mergers), there's more than a few justified questions raised about AT&T growing larger.
This is, after all, a company that in the last four years alone has been fined for ripping off programs
designed for low-income households, ripping off programs
designed to aid the hearing impaired, actively aiding drug dealing directory assistance scammers
, and making bills harder to understand
to help crammers. It's the same company that fought viciously against net neutrality, and is busy using "zero rating" to begin giving its own content an unfair advantage
in the market. Yes, what could possibly go wrong with letting AT&T grow immeasurably larger?
Letting one company control an ocean-sized portion of all progamming and
the conduit to the home has always been controversial. And while regulators did set some conditions to Comcast's 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal, it was found that Comcast ignored many of those conditions
, ultimately leading to regulators blocking its subsequent acquisition attempt of Time Warner Cable.
In this case, AT&T is making it clear that the acquisition is all about the company's upcoming launch of its DirecTV Now streaming video service
"Both Mr. Stephenson of AT&T and Jeffrey L. Bewkes of Time Warner stressed that during nearly three months of deal negotiations, the idea driving the talks was that Time Warner could help AT&T build out its own video streaming service. That service, called DirecTV Now, is Mr. Stephenson’s response to the migration of consumers toward mobile and online video watching and away from traditional cable packages."
Owning that much content certainly makes licensing easier for AT&T. The problem, again, is that the current FCC has refused
to seriously address zero rating (giving your own content a broadband cap exemption while still penalizing Netflix) as a potential anti-competitive weapon. AT&T, in response, has made it abundantly clear that zero rating will play a huge role in this upcoming service. Regulators could ban AT&T from using zero rating to favor Time Warner content, though history has shown enforcement of these promises is inconsistent.
And that's before you get to the spectre of AT&T almost certainly (based on past behavior
) using its role as a broadcaster to hamstring the streaming services that hope to compete with it. Or AT&T's abysmal history on privacy issues, be that the use of stealth cookies
to track user behavior without consent, or the company's attempts to charge users more money
just to opt out of private data collection and sales. AT&T's also fighting tooth and nail against new FCC broadband privacy protections the agency is expected to vote on later this week.
In short, AT&T apparently believes that the best way to navigate a dramatically changing TV landscape that requires flexibility and innovation is to grow bigger and clumsier than ever
The company has been losing broadband, TV, and postpaid phone subscribers the last few quarters. Executives apparently believe the best solution is to strike a series of massive traditional media deals (with valuations based on peak TV earnings and cash flow) just as the traditional TV sector prepares for a free fall. AT&T bought a satellite TV giant on the eve of the cord cutting revolution, and now aims to buy a traditional media giant just as the TV market begins truly entering an identity crisis. But there's absolutely no indication that any of these deals will make AT&T magically more relevant to Millennials, or that vertical integration between distributors and content producers is still a guaranteed route to success
That doesn't mean AT&T won't engage in anti-competitive behavior to try and make it work. Once AT&T launches its new streaming service, the company could make it much harder than ever for competing streaming providers to license the programming necessary to compete with it. AT&T could also zero rate its own content, further penalizing streaming video providers trying to compete in the space. And again, that's before you get to AT&T's history on privacy or any other creative new efforts AT&T will cook up to use its significantly larger scale and broadband monopoly to unfair advantage.
This being election season, the Presidential hopefuls were quick to chime in (sort of). Hillary Clinton gave somewhat of a non-answer by saying
that she "certainly thinks regulators should look at" the deal (as if regulators tasked to review a deal would do anything else). It was actually Donald Trump's camp that issued the clearest opposition to the deal:
"This oligopolistic realignment of the American media along ideological and corporate lines is destroying an American democracy that depends on a free flow of information and freedom of thought,” Peter Navarro, a senior economic adviser to Mr. Trump, said in a statement on Sunday.
Broken clocks, twice a day, etc. All told there's little to any indication that the deal would be good for consumers, AT&T competitors or small businesses. But there are also doubts that regulators under the (likely) Clinton administration would stop the deal, if her non-answer and the notable amount of telecom money
headed in the Clinton camp's direction is any indication. Regardless of the regulatory response, history
suggests it should at least be fun watching AT&T's lawyers, lobbyists, and armies of think tankers once again try to spit shine the company's latest attempt to become larger and more powerful than ever.