Justice Department urges judge to block AT&T-Time Warner merger

March 22, 2018 6:01 pm

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration urged a federal judge on Thursday to block AT&T Inc’s proposed $ 85 billion merger with Time Warner Inc, saying the deal would hand the company a “weapon” to harm competition and raise consumer prices.

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes arrives ahead of arguments in the trial to determine if AT&T’s merger with Time Warner is legal under antitrust law at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

During opening statements in one of the most closely watched U.S. antitrust trials in years, Justice Department lawyer Craig Conrath said the deal would hike prices by more than $ 400 million annually, or an average of $ 0.45 a month for pay TV subscribers.

Conrath said AT&T would be able to use content from movie and TV show maker Time Warner including its Turner unit to prevent innovation. The merger will hurt 90 million U.S. pay TV subscribers, Conrath added.

“This is a weapon to harm competition,” Conrath told U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, who will decide the case.

The Justice Department filed suit in November to stop AT&T, which has some 25 million pay-TV subscribers, from closing the deal. AT&T says a merger would benefit consumers by creating efficiencies. AT&T is the biggest pay-TV provider via subsidiary DirecTV.

Opening statements were delayed one day by bad weather in Washington.

Conrath suggested that AT&T would be able to hike fees that Turner charges for its content by about 10 percent if the merger were approved and that the company could withhold content from rival distributors. He referenced an internal email from Turner executives that Dish Network Corp’s Sling service would be “crap” without Turner content, as he paraphrased the stronger language in the email.

A pedestrian walks past an AT&T store in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Trump publicly criticized the deal as a candidate and as president, and the Republican president often has excoriated Time Warner’s CNN news network.

If the administration loses, that could open up the field for similar tie-ups between distributors and content providers. But a win could strengthen the hand of antitrust regulators looking at other, similarly structured mergers.

AT&T and Time Warner are not direct competitors, making the deal a so-called vertical merger between companies on the same supply chain. The vast majority of challenged mergers involve one rival buying another.

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The merger would hand AT&T, if it becomes the new owner of Time Warner, the motive and opportunity to refuse to license March Madness NCAA basketball tournament games, along with premium cable channel HBO and other content, to pay-TV rivals and online distributors, the Justice Department has said.

AT&T lawyer Daniel Petrocelli had asked for access to communications between the White House and Justice Department about the deal, but the judge denied the request.

If the government loses, Verizon Communications Inc and Charter Communications Inc could strike deals to buy movie or television makers and squeeze smaller pay-TV providers.

AT&T has said the merger would result in more than $ 2.5 billion in annual cost savings by 2020. It argues that the deal is crucial to compete with companies like Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Netflix Inc.

The internet companies pose two challenges to pay TV. They either compete with cable and satellite television for ad dollars or provide cheaper online video that has hurt pricey pay-TV. Some do both.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham

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