Today’s update could be called the “don’t hold your breath” edition. Once we knew that Judge Richard Leon would deliver his verdict on the Time Warner-AT&T proposed merger on Tuesday of this week, well we knew we had our biggest impact news event of the week.
And I’ll get to it. But first I want to provide my recommendation on how to read the news.
Listen, I’m just some guy writing on the internet. You don’t have to listen to me. Even if you don’t take my advice, maybe it will cause you to pause for just a moment to question your (unasked) assumptions. Maybe you’ve thought a lot about your daily schedule and your news diet; if you haven’t, maybe my unasked for advice will help you reconsider it. To make you better.
To illustrate my advice, take my schedule. On Monday, as I was planning my week, I considered clearing my Tuesday schedule to wait for the AT&T decision. I thought, “Maybe I should schedule some time to react to that in real time.” Instead, I went the other way: I deliberately avoided all news on Tuesday and spent the time writing my article on the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm.
Because I didn’t need to know the results of the decision right away. In fact, by waiting, I could savor the really quality analysis of the decision instead of the simply immediate news. So that’s what I did. Unless you work at Time-Warner, AT&T, Comcast or Disney, you could wait until the news was digested and analyzed.
You should follow my example. The fastest breaking news is often wrong. The initial story often times doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision last week was the most glaring example of this. The initial articles failed to capture that even though the ruling was in favor of the baker, it didn’t set a precedent.) That’s reason one to take your time. The second is that breaking news hardly ever is really relevant to your current decision-making. In other words, if you don’t need the news to make an immediate decision, you can schedule it to later. Like I did with this post.
So, avoid the news during the work day, or until scheduled times. And have a deliberate news reading strategy that avoids the urgent for the important.
Just my advice. On to the regularly scheduled programming.
The Most Important Story of the Week
The AT&T-Time Warner merger is the biggest story this week, probably the month and will likely make the top five in our year-end roundup. So no other stories this week, just this one. Because it is such big news, I won’t just provide my usual one thought but three:
The reason? Netflix
Well, Netflix and all other “innovative” video streamers. I read that Judge Leon approved the merger because of Netflix in a few different articles, and I wondered if Judge Leon really did emphasize this as much as the coverage suggested. Well, he did. Judge Leon put it right on page 2. He says, paraphrasing, customers are cord cutting because of successful business models like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (in that order, too, which says something) and that means, if you buy it, Time-Warner and AT&T needed this merger to stay relevant.
But what if Judge Leon misunderstands why the streaming companies have gained market share? The answer to that question is crucial to both good governance (via regulation) and good business (via competitor decisions). If Netflix and Amazon are truly creating value for customers, then we shouldn’t allow this merger to hinder that; we should force Time-Warner and AT&T to separately discover how to create value for customers. If Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are, on the other hand, simply capturing value by delivering products at below cost, then we shouldn’t allow this merger because those companies have unsustainable business models. They’ll flame out as soon as the markets correct and we’ll have this colossus remaining.
The predictions of future mergers? Too confident
As soon as the deal was announced, I read this take in The Hollywood Reporter and elsewhere. I’d call this the “generic hot take” analysis of the deal. I just want to raise a flag that says, “Be aware: this is a prediction, not a fact.”
Honestly, the entertainment industry has been consolidating for forty years. This may accelerate that trend, but not by that much. That’s a prediction too, but being more skeptical is usually more reliable than being overly optimistic. Also, while one judge could have stopped this deal the Trump administration seems largely supportive of mergers so the pace in entertainment likely would have continued.
The impact? Bad for consumers
I say this as a committed free-marketeer. Basically, I love Luigi Zingales’ description of himself from an old Planet Money episode:
“I’m pro-markets, but not necessarily pro-business.”
There’s a difference. I can’t provide all my logic and explanations in this post, but I’ll say that more industry consolidation in any industry tends to be bad for consumers. Yes, consolidation can lead to lower prices, but it can also lead to less consumer choice (including lower prices on average, with a higher floor, if that makes sense). The problem is businesses love consolidation. That’s why “pro-business” isn’t the same as “pro-market”.
I tend to side with Kevin Drum, who has summed it up best, that there are benefits to competition in and of itself. So yes, I side with those who say this is a bad deal for consumers/customers/the public. Having massive monopolies or near monopolies or oligopolies doesn’t help customers. And the entry of other monopolies from a different industry (technology) isn’t an argument for more consolidation.
So those were my three thoughts. I have two more I’m letting marinate for a week as I think about them. I’ll add I had hoped to read better analysis on this topic then I saw, in general. But just because I didn’t read a lot, didn’t mean I didn’t find a few of good ones:
Michael Hiltzick in the LA Times
His opening is good on its own, because it just captures the inanity of the situation. At the same time that a judge can rule this deal protects consumers, most of the public/intelligentsia acknowledge that this merger will likely hurt consumers. That’s a win for the lawyers. But his point is definitely right that this deal isn’t unique at all and Comcast-NBCUniversal cleared the way. That deal at least had a lot of strings that scared off future mergers.
(And he didn’t point out that the judge who approved Comcast-NBCUniversal is the same one who approved this deal. That staggers me. More on that later.)
Tara LaChapelle in Bloomberg
This article is basically a variation on the “mergers are imminent!” theme I semi-questioned above. That said, I’m a sucker for visualizations that help to clarify a complex topic. This one succeeds. (And its predecessor.) It’s a good layout of the landscape. Though it doesn’t mean the pace of mergers will increase as predicted.
Nilay Patel in The Verge
If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I enjoyed Patel’s thorough read-through of the opinion and summarizing. He also points out how often Judge Leon got the facts about entertainment wrong. He also shows how the judge’s read of one expert decided basically the entire case. In other words, if you want to know the danger in having one expert approve deals that impact the future of entertainment, this is it.