The debacle which was the AT&T merger with Time Warner, which is now known under the name Warner Media, has been a topic featured on this blog several times in the past. The detrimental effect it would have on competition in the media landscape is also a topic that has been part of my prior work on this merger.
It was widely reported that an outage of HBO occurred last week for customers of Dish and Sling TV services. It is hard to believe that AT&T / Warner Media had no role in engineering this outage to damage the competition with AT&T owned DirecTV standing to gain potential subscribers as an outcome.
This type of disruption or potential withholding of content is precisely what the Department of Justice was concerned about relative to AT&T merging with Time Warner. This potential misuse of the control of content or content ownership to damage the competitors of DirecTV was a central focus of the DOJ lawsuit in this merger earlier this year.
In that court proceeding, one judge made the decision to allow the merger to proceed, no jury was involved. The judge sided with AT&T in “buying” their version of the case that they wanted to reinvent AT&T for the long haul. The government argued that the merger would impact competition because it would give AT&T too much influence and control over content. The government argued that AT&T would use that control to provide favorable pricing for their own enterprise, DirecTV, at the expense of Dish, Fios, Comcast, and other cable television providers. It was a conflict of interest that the government was concerned about with this merger.
The exact situation has played out and could become a factor when the content of certain premium HBO programs comes up for distribution as well as the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament which Turner Sports (part of Warner Media) has the rights to broadcast. The new AT&T/Warner Media could jack up the prices on that content to the competition, while at the same time create advantageous promotional pricing for DirecTV in order to siphon off subscribers from their competitors.
DirecTV Now is a service that allows people to stream content without having a satellite dish attached to their residence. The service is opening up a new subscriber base to the DirecTV platform with less equipment and front-end costs. The development is one that can be viewed as positive, and the reviews are good overall for the service to this point. In some ways, this advancement will help competition because it gives the consumer another option if they are not a candidate for a satellite dish and they may feel locked in to one cable television provider.
However, this service can become problematic if AT&T influences the content available on this service and withholds that content from their competition in some way. This ties in to the other big media news of the Warner Media streaming app-based service that is built and being pushed to launch ahead of the long-awaited Disney app launch. Warner Media is trying to beat Disney to the punch on getting their streaming service up and going in the marketplace.
The question within the media industry at this point is whether that is a smart strategy by Warner Media if they rush the service to market and then have some glitches that lead to customer disappointment.
In the event that the outage or the disruptions that have involved Warner Media content and the competition for DirecTV in the marketplace are, in fact, valid that is a sad state of affairs for the whole industry. This has led to some analysts with greater knowledge of the industry space than myself to produce some insightful commentary pieces on the potential for the Department of Justice to reintroduce legal proceedings to reverse the merger.
That would certainly create a ripple effect throughout the media, telecommunications, and cable/satellite TV services industries all at the same time. The counterpunch to that effort was a group of businessmen writing op-ed type pieces of their own to implore the court system to not entertain the reversal of the merger. It is going to get interesting.
The issue in my own view of this situation is not the streaming services being offered to provide more choices to the customer. The issue is that you cannot set the playing field up in a way that is going to unfairly treat competition in the marketplace or set the rules up so that one party gains from them and everyone else is at a competitive disadvantage. That is what I want all the readers out there to think about in this circumstance; because those consequences will be felt across other industries that will have a much greater impact on your life than just being able to watch a program on your television set.
(Some background courtesy of Reuters, CNBC, CBS MArketwatch, and CNN)