from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
You might recall that AT&T recently defeated the DOJ’s challenge to their $86 billion merger with Time Warner thanks to a comically narrow reading of the markets by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon. At no point in his 172-page ruling (which approved the deal without a single condition) did Leon show the faintest understanding that AT&T intends to use vertical integration synergistically with the death of net neutrality to dominate smaller competitors and squeeze more money from consumers in an ocean of creative new ways.
Throughout the case the DOJ tried to demonstrate (poorly) that a bigger AT&T has every incentive to behave badly. Admittedly those efforts were pretty feeble since the multi-decade steady lobbyist erosion of antitrust law left them trying to make the case within very narrow confines of legally-acceptable economic theory. The DOJ also shot itself in the foot by refusing to even mention AT&T’s attacks on net neutrality, likely because it didn’t want to highlight the fact that another arm of the government (the FCC) was actively harming the same consumers the DOJ claimed it was trying to protect.
Regardless, with the merger still less than 5 months old, AT&T has been quick to show why people were concerned. The company has already quickly jacked up rates on most of its subscribers and imposed all manner of bizarre new fees as it tries to recoup the massive debt it incurred from both the DirecTV and Time Warner mergers. And this week, AT&T blacked out (previously Time Warner-owned) HBO content for Dish Network customers during contract negotiations, the first time that has happened in the history of HBO:
“AT&T Inc.?s HBO and Cinemax programs were pulled from Dish Network Corp.?s satellite service after the companies failed to reach a new distribution agreement, setting up a real-life ?Game of Thrones? between two of the biggest players in pay TV. It is the first time in HBO?s more than four-decade history that programming has been blocked at a distribution partner over a contract dispute, according to AT&T, which acquired the premium cable network as part of its June $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.
We’ve noted for years how retransmission and carriage fee disputes in the cable industry have grown increasingly common and are only getting worse. Basically, when it comes time to sign a new deal paying for content, broadcasters generally demand huge rate hikes for the same channels. Cable operators then play hardball, and during negotiations one side or the other (usually broadcasters) pulls their content from the cable lineup. Consumers never see refunds for these feuds, even though these feuds have occasionally left them without access to channels they’ve already paid for, for months.
For weeks, consumers are bombarded with PR missives, new websites and on-screen warnings all trying to amplify public outrage and drive greater pressure for one side or the other to buckle. After a while, the two sides strike a new confidential deal, and the higher rates are then quickly passed on to consumers. In a letter to lawmakers last year, Dish Network argued that consumers have faced 750 such broadcaster blackouts since 2010, with the retransmission consent fees that broadcasters demand growing a whopping 27,400% between 2005 and 2016.
Of course Time Warner and HBO management traditionally took the high road to avoid these kinds of problems, something that appears to have suddenly and abruptly changed. HBO execs are implying to media outlets that this could all just be a press stunt by Dish to apply pressure on AT&T as it fights the DOJ’s recent appeal. Even if that’s the case, consumer groups and out-leveraged smaller cable ops have been pushing for years for updated regulations that ban companies from blacking out content while companies bicker over rates.
These demands are never really taken seriously in DC, as it’s seen as too heavy handed of an intervention into negotiations between two companies. Ignored is that during these outages, consumers don’t see refunds for content they paid for, and this consumer outrage itself is actively encouraged by both sides in a bid to apply pressure on the other end of the deal. While the FCC under Wheeler flirted with the idea of basic FCC rules putting this ridiculous tap dance to bed, there was simply no follow through.
That AT&T was going to use its newfound power to jack up prices for its TV competitors wasn’t rocket science, especially if you’ve watched AT&T’s particular flavor of “doing business” anytime over the last two decades.
The irony here is that AT&T even promised the DOJ that it would avoid these kinds of blackouts as a merger condition if the DOJ approved the deal. But the DOJ sued anyway claiming it was helping consumers (though Trump’s disdain for CNN and Trump ally Rupert Murdoch’s lobbying against the deal are seen as more likely justifications for a consumer-protection phobic Trump administration). But the DOJ’s sloppy handling of the case and a terrible ruling by Leon left AT&T more powerful than ever, and consumers and competitors left more vulnerable than ever.
And that’s before you even get to AT&T’s plans for the post net neutrality world, currently on hold pending the outcome of next February’s looming court battle.
Here in the States we have this bizarre tendency to either mindlessly approve megamergers with zero conditions, or conditions that companies are allowed to just tap dance around. The resulting mega-company then behaves badly, and everybody just stands around with a stupid look on their face. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Filed Under: competition, hbo, mergers, retransmission, retransmission disputes, tv, tv blackouts
Companies: at&t, dish, hbo, time warner