I want to start by applauding Randal Stephenson for coming out quickly and denying the rumors that DoJ asked them to sell CNN as the price of getting the merger done. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that negotiations were “complicated,” and that he and recently confirmed Asst A.G. for Antitrust Makan Delrahim were still “getting to know each other” and “figure out the ask on the other side of the table.” He also made it clear that, if DoJ does challenge, AT&T is prepared to go to court and are confident they will win.
AT&T is generally pretty good at persuading everyone that DoJ doesn’t really have a case against them. As folks may recall, despite the fact that the proposed AT&T/T-Mo transaction violated just about every basic tenant of existing antitrust law, AT&T managed to convince everyone for the longest time that DoJ was just playing hardball with them and didn’t really mean it because DoJ didn’t really have a case. While Stephenson refused to discuss what was negotiated, the rumors suggest it was a demand to divest either DIRECTV or the Turner Broadcasting cable channels (which include CNN, as well as TNT, HBO and a bunch of other real popular programming.) Once again, you have antitrust experts who do not have any particular experience with cable mergers shaking their heads and predicting that DoJ has no case.
In fact, demanding divestiture of either the must have content or the DIRECTV distribution platform is precisely the remedy you would expect if you believe the deal presents significant harm because of the vertical integration issues. That’s been the position of my employer, Public Knowledge, which has opposed the transaction since AT&T announced the deal. (That predates Trump’s election, for those of you wondering.) If you want a more detailed understanding of the theory of the harms, you can find it in my boss Gene Kimmelman’s testimony to Congress here. While generally true that vertical deals are hard to challenge, the cable industry has long been something of an exception, and the remedy here is similar to what the FTC imposed on the AT&T/Turner deal in 1996, where the FTC imposed stock divestitures and restructuring to eliminate the voting interest of John Malone and Liberty Media because of Malone/Liberty’s ownership TCI, which was then the largest cable operator in the United States (25% national market share). Given the massive criticism of “behavioral” remedies and a call to return to “structural” remedies from the right and the left, it’s unsurprising that DoJ would want actual divestiture rather than go the Comcast/NBCU consent decree route.
But as Stephenson noted, negotiations have only just begun in earnest, so we may end up with behavioral remedies after all. We’ll see.
I dig into details below . . . .