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By Liz Crampton
A group of U.S. Democratic senators is pressuring the Justice Department to “strongly scrutinize” the proposed merger of AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc. because they believe the deal would lead to higher TV and internet prices, fewer choices for consumers, and reduced quality of services.
Led by U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), 11 senators in a June 21 letter urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prevent further consolidation in the media industry.
The letter comes as consumer advocates are expressing worries about increasing consolidation in media and telecommunications and lax enforcement. The Federal Communications Commission under Republican Chairman Ajit Pai recently loosened media ownership rules to allow the merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Tribune Media Co., for example.
The FCC isn’t reviewing the AT&T-Time Warner deal because it doesn’t involve a transfer of broadcast licenses. The DOJ is giving it a close look, however.
The Democratic senators believe the DOJ shouldn’t simply apply conditions on the AT&T-Time Warner deal — such as limiting potential anticompetitive behavior by the merged company. Those measures would be insufficient to address the ways the newly-formed media conglomerate could restrict access to diverse television programming and premium channels like HBO, raise monthly bills for consumers, and violate the principles of net neutrality.
“While we cannot possibly predict all the harms that could arise from this deal, we maintain that AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner would result in higher prices, fewer choices, and worse service for consumers,” they wrote. “We hope you’ll take a stand for U.S. consumers and businesses and closely scrutinize the transaction. Should you determine that the substantial harms arising from the transaction outweigh the purported benefits, we urge you to reject it.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, didn’t sign on to Franken’s letter. An aide to Klobuchar told Bloomberg BNA that the senator “shares the views of the senators who signed the letter and is glad they sent it,” but she already has signed her own bipartisan letter about the deal with the subcommittee’s chairman Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“She felt it was best to do a bipartisan letter with Chairman Lee to outline concerns about the merger to the attorney general and his staff,” the aide said.
While members of Congress can apply pressure on antitrust officials, the agencies have the final say in approving or preventing deals. The Justice Department is taking a close look at the deal. A “second request” for more information, marking the start of an in-depth regulatory review that lasts many months, was issued to the companies late last year.
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