Corporate Enthusiasts Trumpet AT&T Merger With Time Warner

WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators grilled executive heads of AT&T and Time Warner – and even billionaire Mark Cuban – Wednesday over the companies’ proposed $85.4 billion merger.

Familiar to many television viewers as a judge on “Shark Tank,” Cuban appeared this afternoon before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights to support the deal.

“We need more companies that can compete with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook,” said Cuban, who himself owns AXS TV and the Dallas Mavericks.

“Delivering content to consumers in an app-driven world isn’t easy,” he added. “It’s very expensive and difficult,” he said.

Noting the younger generation’s appetite for “content to come to them,” Cuban said he worried that traditional television will be unable to keep up with demand.

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Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, likewise told the Senate panel that curated programming is just what consumers can expect if the merger with Time Warner closes.

AT&T already offers a similar product with DirecTV Now, which offers customers the ability to stream television live, plus video on demand, for a $35 monthly rate.

By comparison, Stephenson said, “average cable television service can cost $50 to $100 per month, regardless of how much you watch or how many channels you watch.”

“It doesn’t change what you pay the cable companies,” he added.

Stephenson said consumers will see “better price options that what they have today” if AT&T is allowed to distribute Time Warner content.

Denying that the merger will chill competition, Stephenson said other companies would be inclined to charge the market, not shrink away from it.

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes echoed this argument when questioned Sen. Michael Lee, a Utah Republican who chairs the subcommittee.

Bewkes said the intent of the merger is not just to disrupt the “entrenched pay-TV model,” but to deploy advanced technology like 5G wireless, sooner and faster.

Sen. Al Franken seemed skeptical, however, of the promise of more for less.

The Minnesota Democrat asked Bewkes how the committee or the Department of Justice could be assured that once merged, the corporations wouldn’t use loopholes to stifle competitors or drive up prices.

“Should this be approved?” Franken asked the committee. “Nothing is preventing a combined AT&T-Time Warner to go into the market and charge double for access to ‘Game of Thrones.’ Or you could simply restrict access to programming entirely and wait for competitors customers to flock to you.”

Stephenson responded that the merged company “would have no incentive or preference” to do so, and that he didn’t understand the economic rationale detractors of the deal have applied since the proposed union was announced earlier this year.

“We built our franchise on an open model,” he said. “If there’s content that customers demand and want, we want it out there. We have little value if we start limiting content and we’re an open-source company,” he said.

The Justice Department will put the deal under intense scrutiny in coming weeks.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he still needs convincing about the merger’s benefits but is also worried about sitting in the same camp as President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump told rallygoers in Pennsylvania this past October that he would nix the AT&T-Time Warner deal because “it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

Blumenthal acknowledged that the deal was complicated, and admitted that he was inclined to agree with the president-elect, but noted that Trump’s conflict in this area raises questions.

Trump also repeatedly accused CNN of bias during his campaign, and frequently referred to the organization as the Clinton News Network.

“For a public official to use a blunt heavy instrument of law enforcement to try and silence or change news coverage by a news department of any company is absolutely abhorrent,” Blumenthal said.

Stephenson and Bewkes said that neither had met with the president elect to discuss the deal.

“My expectation was and is that the Justice Department will be the one reviewing this transaction and making the determination of whether or not it’s competitive,” Stephenson said. “We think the facts will be very compelling and very pro-consumer.”