FCC Stops Clock On Merger Reviews

The FCC's Media Bureau has stopped the clock on both the AT&T/DirecTV and the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger reviews, citing a series of objections filed by content companies who don't want their contracts accessed by third parties.

The FCC modified the joint protective orders in the deals earlier to try and accommodate those content companies, which included CBS, Scripps Networks Interactive, Disney, Time Warner, Twenty First Century Fox, Univision and Viacom.

They had asked that contracts be reviewed at Justice, not the FCC, but the Commission denied that request and modified the order to add what it said were a unique combination of protections to exclude "competitive decisionmakers" from accessing the information.

On October 15, the companies, joined by Discovery and TV One, began challenging individually all those who sought to review highly confidential info, including those video programming contracts, under the FCC's modified order.

The bureau says most of those objections were not specific to the individual requests--more than 100 of them--but were instead a blanket effort to prevent any access to carriage deals.

Some commenters have accused the companies of trying to nullify the protective order by filing the multiple objections and say not having access to the contracts would hamper their evaluations of the applications.

The bureau said it agreed, and has stopped the informal 180-day shot clock on the review of both deals and suspended the pleading cycle until it rules on the programmer objections.

After that it will issue a new pleading cycle. The bureau took the action on delegated authority, which means the commissioners did not vote.

The FCC stopped the clock on Comcast/TWC earlier this month to get more info from the company.

"As we noted previously, it is routine for the FCC to pause the review of significant transactions as it works to create a full record," said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast VP, government communications, in a statement. "The Commission is working to hear the concerns of various parties. In the meantime, review of information and evidence already in the docket will continue.  We are confident that the Commission will quickly resolve these issues while continuing its work so that review will be completed in early 2015."

"The FCC’s decision to stop the clock has nothing to do with the merits of our deal or the information we’ve provided them on the significant public interest benefits," said an AT&T spokesman. "As the FCC’s order makes clear, this relates to content companies’ concerns about the confidentiality of the information they provide the FCC.

"We’re confident in the FCC’s rigorous procedures for keeping information confidential and we’re ready to provide them with the information they have requested.

"The FCC stopping the clock on merger reviews is fairly common and today’s decision does not change our expectation to close our deal in the first half of 2015."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.