Time Warner Blasts DOJ After Judge Approves AT&T Merger

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It’s official: AT&T can merge with Time Warner

A federal judge handed AT&T a sweeping victory on Tuesday and approved its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, a deal that promises to reshape the media industry.

The tie-up would Wednesday largest United States pay-TV operator and the second-largest wireless phone carrier with Time Warner, owner of premium channel HBO, the Warner Bros studios, Cartoon Network and CNN. Companies in many industries may feel more free to strike deals as a result of Leon's ruling.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon green-lit the merger without adding major conditions to the deal.

Leon rejected the notion of temporarily suspending the merger for a possible appeal by the government. He called one of the government's arguments against the deal "gossamer thin".

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The Justice Department can appeal and could ask an appellate court to stay the ruling, though Leon said he hoped the government would have the "good judgment" not to do so.

The government's case hinged on an economic model produced by Carl Shapiro, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, who predicted an annual price increase to consumers of at least $285 million.

Former Federal Communications Commission staff attorney Blair Levin said a loose interpretation of antitrust law would allow the government to block nearly any deal, and open up the process to political interference.

"Justice denied and consumers skewered", Copps said.

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Investors are now also expecting major media consolidation, with Twenty-First Century Fox Inc shares rising more than 6 percent in after-market trading. "There's no constraints", Copps said. From Comcast's bid for 21st Century Fox to CVS's acquisition of Aetna, massive corporations increasingly have sought to expand their reach by buying up companies in different lines of business. A looming example is the pending merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, a $26 billion combination of the country's third and fourth-largest wireless companies.

"This was a defining case for antitrust enforcement in the U.S.", former Justice Department antitrust attorney Ketan Jhaveri said.

Other analysts maintained that because it is a "vertical" tie-up of two companies without overlapping operations, it should pass muster based on legal precedent for the past three decades. Time Warner and AT&T avoided invoking the president's statements before and during the trial, and the judge barred them from obtaining White House communications to introduce in the trial, stating in March that the companies had "fallen far short of establishing that this enforcement action was selective".

AT&T can use the content from Time Warner to fill its streaming services DirecTV Now and soon-to-be-launched AT&T Watch, which are cheaper online video packages with fewer channels. The government failed to prove that the merger would dampen competition and innovation and raise prices for pay TV, said Daniel Petrocelli, the companies' lead attorney in defending the merger. The Justice Department's top antitrust official, Makan Delrahim, issued a sworn affidavit during the trial saying the decision to bring the case was not influenced by the White House. For instance, it could compel a rival cable company like Comcast to pay sharply higher fees for the right to carry Time Warner shows like NBA basketball games or the hugely popular HBO drama "Game of Thrones". "Already, with their cable systems, they control what people see and hear".

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AT&T announced plans to acquire Time Warner on October 22, 2016.

Trump's criticism prompted speculation that the lawsuit was politically motivated. President Trump, while still a candidate, had said he would block the deal "because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few".

Judge Richard Leon scheduled a hearing for 4:00 pm (1900 GMT) to announce his decision, which may come around the same time as a written opinion following a seven-week bench trial.

But both Copps and Radia expressed doubt that the Justice Department will be in a hurry to challenge future mergers. And the outcome of this case may not foretell the future.

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