One of the questions weighing on my mind as the long regulatory review of AT&T's proposed buyout of Time Warner drags on is whether this year's media mega-merger is different in any substantial way from Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal way back in 2011. If yes, then it should be closely evaluated. But if no, then AT&T should receive the same regulatory treatment that Comcast did when it brought NBCU in house. Right?
First, let's look at how the two transactions compare. In both cases, a major content distribution company is merging with a programming powerhouse. That leads to big advantages, including greater flexibility in developing content bundles, the ability to balance out program licensing fees paid to other companies with program licensing fees earned, and a larger, cross-platform set of assets to be used for advertising sales.
The fundamentals of both deals are the same, but there are differences.
One of the differences is price. The Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) deal was initially valued at $30 billion when the cable company took a 51% stake in NBCUniversal LLC . Comcast then invested about another $16.7 billion when it took over complete ownership of the network two years later, for a total of $46.7 billion. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), on the other hand, is ready to shell out $85 billion for Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX).
The difference in price sounds huge, but Comcast has also more than doubled NBCU's revenue since it bought the company. That makes the value of NBCU today presumably much closer to that of Time Warner, and also the combined entities of Comcast/NBCU and AT&T/Time Warner more similar.
What about scale on the distribution side?
Among the concerns that several Democratic senators recently outlined in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the fact that while Comcast's distribution footprint is limited, AT&T has nationwide reach, therefore making the telco's tie-up with Time Warner theoretically more egregious.
Again, this sounds logical, but Comcast also controls a national mobile footprint through its MVNO deal with Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), even though it only sells to subscribers in its existing service area today. And while Comcast has pooh-poohed the idea of launching a nationwide OTT video service, it has also repeatedly demonstrated its ambition to expand not only nationally, but globally, through technology licensing deals, business services and more. That doesn't create an apples-to-apples comparison with AT&T, but it does show that Comcast's reach extends beyond its traditional cable territory, and that the company's presence is likely to continue growing further. (See Comcast Boasts Global Plans for X1.)
What about corporate behavior?
One potentially significant difference between the Comcast and AT&T deals is that even before the telco acquires Time Warner, it's already shown a willingness to use its distribution power to undercut other pay-TV competitors on price -- something Comcast hadn't shown before it acquired NBCU. Consumers can buy AT&T's DirecTV Now bundle for only $10 a month if they also subscribe to an unlimited wireless data plan.
Hooray, low prices! Well, yes, it's great in the short term.
In the long term, however, it means that AT&T is using its broadband revenues to subsidize pay-TV services, giving the operator a huge advantage over companies that don't own both content and distribution channels. That behavior threatens market competition, and with Time Warner content added to its library, AT&T will only have more incentive to keep programming costs high for others while it uses its broadband business to keep itself profitable on the distribution end.
Conclusion: Prior behavior is different, but that difference is accounted for as much by the change in the television market in recent years as it is by AT&T's corporate strategy. Comcast too has begun to subsidize TV services with its broadband offering, bundling a video subscription with broadband for only an extra $5 to $10 per month plus equipment costs. (Those equipment costs can add up if a subscriber connects several TVs, but a customer also has to pay a modem rental fee for broadband service if he doesn't own his own.)
Comcast decidedly wants to steer customers away from a broadband-only purchase. (See Why You Can't Quit Cable TV.)
Here's the problem. Even if I could argue that there's a meaningful difference between AT&T's deal and the one Comcast completed more than six years ago, I'm not sure I'd buy my own argument. If held under oath, I'd say that I think the benefits accrued from the respective transactions are about the same. And that means, in my opinion, that the two deals make the competitive positions of AT&T and Comcast in the television market roughly equal.
If anything, AT&T may still wind up at a disadvantage in the pay-TV space given the fact that the conditions imposed on Comcast's merger with NBCU are set to expire soon. (See Comcast Ready for Clash With Hulu. )
From a consumer perspective, I don't think the NBCU deal should have been approved back in 2011. But since it was, there's a real argument that regulators will feel obligated to approve AT&T's buyout of Time Warner as well. Even if it's not in consumers' best interest.
And even if that means President Trump has to go back on another campaign promise. (See Trump: Dump AT&T/TW & Comcast/NBC.)
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading