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What the AT&T-Time Warner merger promises — and what it threatens

What the AT&T-Time Warner merger promises — and what it threatens
The FCC warned AT&T in November about so-called zero rating and said this week that AT&T's response did not ease its concerns. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

In the latest blockbuster media merger, AT&T announced over the weekend that it will pay $85.4 billion to buy Time Warner (the media company that owns Warner Bros. Studios, CNN and HBO, not the cable company recently purchased by Charter Communications). The deal doesn't pose the kind of clear threat to consumers that's seen when a company seeks to buy a direct competitor, as AT&T did with its ill-fated attempt to purchase T-Mobile. Instead, the combination of a major content distributor with a major content creator presents more of a mixed bag of potential benefits and drawbacks, neither of which regulators should ignore.

The former Ma Bell's move is a delayed response to Comcast's 2010 purchase of NBC Universal, which put one of the country's biggest film and TV studios in the hands of its largest cable TV operator. One crucial difference is that AT&T, the second-largest pay-TV operator (mainly through the satellite-TV service it purchased in 2014, DirecTV), also operates the country's second-most-popular mobile phone network. Buying NBC Universal gave Comcast more freedom to do innovative things with that programming in customers' homes; buying Time Warner would give AT&T more freedom to do innovative things with those movies and TV shows not only in customers' homes but wherever they go with their smartphones.

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AT&T could also use the merger to lower the cost of pay TV by taking direct aim at the the programming bundles that are at the heart of the industry's high prices. If it made Time Warner's movies and cable channels available on an a la carte basis, both through pay TV and online, that would be a truly disruptive pro-consumer, pro-competitive step.

As with any merger between programmers and distributors, the pro-competitive incentives for the combined company could be offset by the anti-competitive ones. For example, Time Warner needs a large audience for its content, but AT&T would also be tempted to withhold some of that content from Verizon, DISH Network and other competitors to make its own services more attractive.

It's a good thing, then, that the Federal Communications Commission has already adopted net neutrality rules that would bar AT&T from favoring its own content over any other provider's online. The commission is also poised to adopt rules that would end cable and satellite TV operators' effective monopoly over the set-top boxes customers use to receive their programming, which should help independent and online-only content providers compete against the CNNs of the world.

But regulators shouldn't assume that those safeguards would be enough. Before they approve AT&T's me-too purchase of Time Warner, regulators should take pains to ensure that the merger makes it easier, not harder, for content providers to build audiences online and on the air. This is a new golden age of video programming, with a proliferation of diverse voices and high-quality content from a growing number of sources. Regulators should be careful not to let ever-bigger media conglomerates bring that to an end.

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