Commentary

AT&T Deal For Time Warner Faces Skeptical Scrutiny

Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes is being hailed as a patient and prescient numbers guy and dealmaker this morning for the $85.4 billion deal he struck with AT&T Saturday but whether the alliance will pass regulatory muster or have legs as a wise consolidation of programming and distribution entities is the subject of much speculation this morning.

“Not an ego-driven builder, Mr. Bewkes turned Time Warner into a takeover target by spinning and slimming the once far-flung conglomerate,” points out Keach Hagey in the Wall Street Journal. The deal “has sealed his legacy as a behind-the-scenes non-mogul media mogul,” writes Emily Steel for the New York Times.

Since he succeeded Richard Parsons as CEO in 2008, Bewkes has “whittled the company down, unloading Time Warner Cable, then AOL, then its Time Inc. magazine division,” Steel reports. “What remained was a focused and well-respected television and film company that owned HBO; Warner Bros. film and television studios; and cable networks including CNN, TNT, Turner Sports and TBS.”

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As for AT&T and its CEO, Randall Stephenson, the “Time Warner Deal Was Always On The Table,” a Reuters headline tells us. “More than a year after the DirecTV deal closed … Stephenson felt he had the firepower to pursue Time Warner,” writes Liana B. Baker. 

“The deal was referred to within AT&T, in order to prevent leaks, as ‘Project Bobtail,’ whose aim was to acquire ‘Rabbit,’ the code name for Time Warner and perhaps a homage to Warner Bros’ Bugs Bunny character. AT&T's code name was ‘Lily,’ the same as the customer service person who appears in their commercials,” Baker continues.

“This thing just had what I would call gravity, and it seemed to move along on its own and we began negotiating out terms very quickly and it was a very natural process,” Stephenson said on a joint conference call with Bewkes on Saturday.

Pointing out that Time Warner’s Bewkes “made a big bet in the summer of 2014 when he rejected an $80 billion takeover bid by 21st Century Fox, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, the WSJ’s Steel says the AT&T deal delivers on his promise that he could do better down the line. 

And he has … if the whole shebang actually happens.

“Reaction … was swift — and, outside of Wall Street, full of skepticism. Much of the concern was rooted in how consumers have fared since Comcast bought NBCUniversal, a deal that provided a template for the consolidation of media and telecommunications,” writes Michael J. de la Merced, also for the New York Times.

“The deal’s risk to consumers is clear. Following its acquisition of DirecTV, AT&T is the largest pay-TV operator in the U.S. It is also the second-largest wireless data provider and the third-largest broadband provider,” writesFortune’s David Z. Morris. “That means AT&T controls a huge proportion of the bandwidth consumers use across multiple platforms. Buying a content producer like Time Warner would give it a big motive to make its own content faster or more accessible than competitors’.” 

Wait, there are regulations preventing that, you say? Read Morris’ piece for insight into how providers are attempting to get around net neutrality.

And BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield “noted there's no evidence that Comcast's 2011 acquisition of NBC led to lower prices. In fact, prices have been increasing broadly, although Greenfield said there’s no way to know whether the deal contributed to that trend,” observes the AP’s Tali Arbel 

“There may not be dramatic harm, but it's certainly hard to find clear benefit,” according to Greenfield.

A number of other analysts, public-interest groups and politicians were quick to agree. 

“Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said it should be killed. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said less concentration in media ‘is generally helpful.’ And the Republican chairman and Democratic ranking member of the Senate's antitrust subcommittee said that the deal would ‘potentially raise significant antitrust issues,’” Arbel writes.

In other words, whoever prevails at the elections next month, look for them in the lights at Congressional hearings probing the probity and virtues of this deal — covered and streamed on a device near you.

2 comments about "AT&T Deal For Time Warner Faces Skeptical Scrutiny".
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  1. John Motavalli from Freelance, October 24, 2016 at 11:17 a.m.

    See how fortunes change, Thom. Bewkes looked like a jerk for rejecting News Corp.'s offer, and now he gets more from AT&T and he's a big hero. 

  2. Laurie Petersen from LPC, llc, October 24, 2016 at 12:30 p.m.

    So dejavuish. This feels like AOL-Time Warner all over again.

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