The merger proposal seeking to join AT&T and Time Warner has been surrounded by controversy almost from the time it was first announced. This proposed merger of a telecommunications and media distribution giant and one of the largest media content creation companies in the world has been the subject of several prior pieces on Frank’s Forum.
The blockbuster $85 billion merger was being held up by a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice over anti-trust concerns. The government was very concerned about AT&T’s ownership of DirecTV and the impact that the merger with Time Warner would have on the costs for rival cable companies to carry channels such as HBO, CNN, TNT, and TBS.
The government was pushing for certain conditions such as having any disputes over high cable prices in light of the AT&T – DirecTV connection be directed to 3rd party arbitration to determine a fair judgement on price. The other condition centered upon blackout rights.
However, the judge in the case, Judge Leon, approved the merger without any conditions attached. The judge viewed the case strictly in terms of a vertical merger between two companies with different core strengths.
The precedent in anti-trust suits very often favors vertical mergers versus horizontal mergers. Some recent examples of horizontal mergers of two entities in the same type of industry are Office Depot and Staples and Walgreens and Rite Aid, both of those mergers failed due to anti-trust concerns over pricing of office supplies or pharmaceuticals, respectively.
The next steps for the government are unclear. The judge, Judge Leon, asked the Department of Justice to not appeal or seek a stay on the decision. His basis for this request is that both sides have spent an exorbitant amount in the case in legal fees and court fees in the “tens of millions”. The view of the court is that AT&T and Time Warner do not compete with one another currently and that the same opinion will be found by another court proceeding.
Some feel that the judge is right on point with this decision on this case. The other sentiment is that the conditions should have been attached to the decision to protect the consumer from hiked cable prices.
In my view, I maintain that the judge neglected to recognize the connection with DirecTV and the potential for the Time Warner properties in the cable television realm could be manipulated to make an unfair advantage for DirecTV. This becomes a bigger issue when certain customers cannot have a satellite dish where they reside. It could result in them paying more for cable or premium channels such as HBO.
The domino effect from this merger will impact potential merger opportunities in the works right now which have been featured on this blog in the past. The big story of the day on Wednesday is the impact this merger decision will have on the Comcast proposal for the assets of 21st Century Fox.
Comcast had stated publicly that they would not get involved in the bid for Fox unless the court gave the green light to AT&T in this case. Comcast was seeking to avoid a protracted lawsuit. The wild card here is that should Comcast make a bid for Fox, the government could get involved because they are both in the same business. The court could see a case for the government because it will be viewed as a horizontal merger, which could become a long slog in the courts for Comcast.
Disney and their bid for Fox has a slightly different perception because they view Disney as a content creator and entertainment company which does not have any expertise in delivering telecommunications services or with cable equipment. They are seen as having a potentially easier path to potentially obtaining Fox.
The stock price outlook for Comcast has been slashed by major investment banks and fell to about $30 per share this morning. This signals that if they do make a play for Fox and get in a bidding war with Disney, they will eventually have to buy back shares. The maneuvers have a direct impact on the valuation of the company.
This merger also brings new traction for CBS and Verizon as a potential opportunity to join forces in the future. CVS also gained from this decision because they are seeking to buy Aetna and this court decision on Time Warner proves that CVS has some viable evidence that this play for Aetna can be seen as a vertical merger opportunity.
This mega merger will make AT&T a much larger player in the media landscape which also brings to the forefront the battle between “old media” versus “new media”. The reality is that if old media outlets do not join together they will be destroyed by the new media giants such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Facebook.
The other reality is that the court looked at this merger with the perspective that cable television services will have to drop prices in order to compete with new media so they are going to allow it to move forward.
The next big prospective M&A prospects are Fox and CBS. The Viacom scenario was a disaster and CBS is looking to move forward to partner with someone else to gain competitive traction as other entities are getting larger.
The effects of this merger will be felt for a long time to come. The way that AT&T handles the marketing and promotion of the former Time Warner channels when they are provided to other cable TV providers such as Fios, Comcast, and Dish.
The domino effect on the other mergers in play right now will also create conditions where the precedent could be difficult for the government to try to protect against the anti-trust implications involved.
In the end, this merger sets the stage between old media versus new media and how that will play out will have a definite impact on the American consumer.