Liberty Media chairman John Malone wondered aloud what federal antitrust regulators were “smoking” these days, as the Justice Department contemplates a lawsuit that would block AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner.
“I personally have very little insight into what the antitrust division is smoking these days,” Malone said during today’s Investor Day conference. “I mean, normally, verticals have always been regarded as pretty straight-forward, low-risk. To the degree that politics gets into it, it becomes difficult to predict.”
Malone told CNBC earlier in the day he was “quite surprised” that the Justice Department was asking AT&T to divest assets — either its Turner Broadcasting unit, which includes CNN, or its El Segundo-based satellite TV business DirecTV.
During a question-and-answer session with investors, Malone elaborated on the climate for mergers and acquisitions. He predicted the continued consolidation of terrestrial platforms and wireless businesses — which he described as a “crummy business” — as cable operators look to keep consumers happy.
“In Europe we’ve experienced a lot of consolidation in terrestrial and wireless,” Malone said. “We think the synergies there ultimately are enormous.”
However, the content side of the business has become a political lightning rod, with the White House deriding CNN as “fake news,” and Congress holding hearings to explore how the Russian operatives used social media platforms to circulate misinformation.
“At the moment, this is extremely politically sensitive — more sensitive than it’s been for along while,” Malone said. “Both the social networking, which is running into political sensitivities, plus the traditional linear, because of the polarization of politics.”
Modest combinations — like Liberty Interactive’s $2 billion deal that would merge its QVC channel with rival Home Shopping Network — are likely to survive antitrust scrutiny, Malone said. Though Discovery Communications’ offer to acquire Scripps Networks Interactive for $14.6 billion is getting a “little more of a look .. than we would have expected.”
“We still have a high expectation that that will be approved,” Malone said of the Discovery-Scripps deal, adding that while the FCC has become more “flexible” and “capitalistic,” the Justice Department remains an unknown.
“We don’t know yet exactly what their concerns are and what the hot buttons will be,” Malone said.
A past mega merger — Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal — appears to be casting a regulatory pall over the proposed $86 billion deal that would combine AT&T and Time Warner. Federal regulators approved the cable giant’s acquisition of the film and television unit, with conditions.
“The professionals at Justice are not happy with the behavioral deals they reached with Comcast on the Comcast-NBC deal,” Malone said. “They’re looking at structural changes.”