When AT&T proposed to merge with Time Warner in 2016, attorneys at the Justice Department argued against the merger and said that the combined company would have too much power since it would be both a content provider and a content purchaser. Justice Department lawyers and various other antitrust lawyers warned that the merger would result in rate hikes and blackouts. AT&T counterargued that they are good corporate citizens and that the merger would be good for consumers.
In retrospect, it looks like the Justice Department lawyers were right. Soon after the merger, AT&T raised the prices for DirecTV and its online service DirecTV Now by $5 per month. The company raised the rates on DirecTV Now again in April of this year by $10 per month. AT&T accompanied the price increases with a decision to no longer negotiate promotional prices with TV customers. In the first two quarters of this year DirecTV lost over 1.3 million customers as older pricing packages expired and the company insisted that customers move to the new prices. AT&T says they are happy to be rid of customers that were not contributing to their bottom line.
In July of this year, CBS went dark for 6.5 million DirecTV and AT&T U-verse cable customers. AT&T said that CBS wanted too much money to renew a carriage deal. The two companies resolved the blackout in August.
Meanwhile, AT&T and Dish networks got into a dispute in late 2018 which resulted in turning off HBO and Cinemax on Dish Network. This blackout has carried into 2019 and the two sides still have not resolved the issue. The dispute cost Dish a lot of customers when the company was unable to carry the Game of Thrones. Dish says that half of its 334,000 customer losses in the fourth quarter of 2018 were due to not having the Game of Thrones.
I just saw headlines that AT&T is headed towards a rate fight with ESPN and warns there could be protracted blackouts.
It’s hard to fully fault any one of the AT&T decisions since they can be justified to some degree as smart business practices. But that’s how monopoly abuses generally work. AT&T wants to pay as little as possible when buying programming from others and wants to charge as much as possible when selling content. In the end, it’s consumers who pay for the AT&T practices – something the company had promised would not happen just months before the blackouts.
Programming fights don’t have to be so messy. Consider Comcast which is also a programmer and the biggest cable TV company. Comcast has gotten into a few disputes over programming, particularly with regional sports programming. In a few of these disputes, Comcast was leveraging its programming power since it also owns NBC and other programming. But these cases mostly got resolved without blackouts.
Regulators are most worried about AT&T’s willingness to allow prolonged blackouts because during blackouts the public suffers. Constantly increasing programming costs have caused a lot of angst for cable TV providers, and yet most disputes over programming don’t result in turning off content. AT&T is clearly willing to flex its corporate muscles since it is operating from a position of power in most cases, as either an owner of valuable content or as one of the largest buyers of content.
From a regulatory perspective this raises the question of how the government can trust the big companies that have grown to have tremendous market power. The Justice Department sued to challenge the AT&T and Time Warner merger even after the merger was approved. That was an extraordinary suit that asked to undo the merger. The Justice Department argued that the merger was clearly against the public interest. The courts quickly ruled against that suit and it’s clear that it’s nearly impossible to undo a merger after it has occurred.
The fact is that companies with monopoly power almost always eventually abuse that power. It’s incredibly hard for a monopoly to decide not to act in its own best interest, even if those actions are considered as monopoly abuses. Corporations are made up of people who want to succeed and it’s human nature for people to take any market advantages their corporation might have. I have to wonder if AT&T’s behavior will make regulators hesitate before the next big merger. Probably not, but AT&T barely let the ink dry on the Time Warner merger before doing things they promised they wouldn’t do.