DirecTV CEO Michael White kept the ember of this long-standing idea burning this morning at the Goldman Sachs Annual Communicopia Conference. “Consolidation could be pro-consumer, perhaps,” he told investors, citing, among other things, the soaring programming costs for DirecTV and other pay TV providers. White says that outlays for popular channels are growing “at an unsustainable rate for consumers.” (That includes DirecTV’s higher payments from its new deal with Viacom, although White says that “we ended up better off” after the companies’ recent showdown.) This would be an awkward time to pursue a deal. Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen has been amassing rights for wireless spectrum and “we have to see what he has in mind to do with it,” White says. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile already are well established in the wireless phone business. “It’s hard for us to see why we’d ever want to go in and compete in that space.” DirecTV would like to offer broadband services, but White says it probably makes more sense to partner with a provider.
White’s not the only person who likes the idea of a DirecTV-Dish combination. “A merger would be great news for both DirecTV and Dish Network” — although the cost savings they’d find “would have to be shared with customers” — Bernstein Research’s Craig Moffett says this morning. The big question is whether a deal might pass muster with the FCC and antitrust officials. If Mitt Romney’s in the White House then “we’ll bet on a formally proposed merger within a year,” Moffett says. But even if President Obama is re-elected “we’ll bet they try it before four years are out.” It’s been almost exactly 10 years since the FCC blocked Ergen’s effort to buy his chief satellite rival. Then-FCC chairman Michael Powell said at the time that a deal would leave many rural viewers with a single video provider and “replace a vibrant competitive market with a regulated monopoly.” He’d no doubt make the same argument today, this time as the cable industry’s chief lobbyist.