Skip to main content

‘Too Much Power’ Led Comcast Into Baer Trap Over TWC Merger

Acting Associate U.S. Attorney General Bill Baer told an American Antitrust Institute crowd last Thursday (June 16) that, under President Obama, the Justice Department’s antitrust division has “embraced” the role of cop on the merger beat. Then he talked about, among other things, the DOJ blowing the whistle on Comcast’s attempt to buy Time Warner Cable.

Baer had been the head of the antitrust division until he got his new job back in April and was replaced by Renata B. Hesse, once senior counsel to former Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski.

In the speech, according to a copy supplied by Justice, Baer talked up the 39 mergers DOJ had challenged or blocked during the Obama Administration, from airport slots and canned tuna to cable TV and online ratings.

Baer said that when eliminating competition via merger creates “substantially increased bargaining leverage,” it also creates an antitrust concern, and he used the scuttled Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal as his exhibit A.

“The merging cable companies did not overlap in any downstream markets,” he conceded, a point they made in arguing for the merger. “Yet the two companies combined provided almost 60% of high-speed broadband Internet service to U.S. households. The merger would have given Comcast too much power over content providers that relied on interconnecting to its network to deliver content.”

Then Baer signaled protecting the edge was a big reason for discouraging the deal, saying, “It risked giving the combined firm the ability and increased incentive to thwart disruptive innovators such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Sling TV — providers of online video services that had begun to threaten the dominance of cable video services that Comcast and others provide.

“Together with our FCC colleagues, we forcefully articulated those concerns to Comcast, which promptly pulled the plug on the deal,” he added. Comcast pulled said plug on April 24, 2015, about 14 months after the companies agreed to merge.

Baer presided over DOJ’s July 2015 approval of the AT&TDirecTV merger and was involved in the recent Charter-TWC review — and approval — though he did not elaborate on why it had been OK for Charter to merge with TWC but not for Comcast. He actually recused himself from the review of Comcast- TWC, with Hesse taking over at the time, because Baer is former head of the antitrust practice group at Arnold & Porter, which did some legal work for NBCUniversal in the Comcast-NBCU transaction.

Open Internet (And Wallet)

The Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet order has been affirmed, on all counts, by a federal appeals court (see page 2). But net-neutrality activists want to make sure supporters don’t think the matter is settled and close up their wallets.

“This is a huge win — but our opposition refuses to quit,” Demand Progress said in an email pitch. Pointing out that Internet service providers will push to overturn the decision on appeal — they have already signaled same — and Republicans were already talking up legislation to undo the decision, the group did not want the apparent “slam dunk” court win to translate into complacency among followers. “It’s far from over,” the group said, asking supporters to kick in $5 for the fight to come.

Public Knowledge did not set a dollar figure in its email solicitation, but also invoked the threat of both the court appeals and Hill action: “The big wireless and cable industries might try to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, and members of Congress supported by these companies might try to create anti-net-neutrality legislation. Please consider donating to help us continue to fight for your digital rights.”

A link to donations had suggestions ranging from a “PK Buddy” designation for $25 to a “PK Champion” designation for $2,500. It also had a “PK DIY’er” for any amount.

— John Eggerton

How FX Broke Bad With Swing and Miss On an ‘Anti-Hero’ Hit

With so many great TV shows being produced, the competition for finding a home run among all those strikeouts, singles and doubles has never been more heated.

As FX’s top original programming executives said at the Next TV Summit & Expo in San Francisco, this means networks have to take risks, swing for the fences and have strong brands behind them.

Even the strongest of brands have to make the right picks more often than not, though, and hope they get the right pitches to swing at.

Asked which show on another network he’d wish for his own channels, the answer was “easy” for Eric Schrier, co-president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions.

“It’s Game of Thrones, and Game of Thrones. That’s a huge, successful show.

I wish we had that show.” Schrier’s co-president at FX, Nick Grad, offered two other picks that became Netflix originals: “I wish we had [Aziz Ansari’s] Master of None. I love that show. Personally, just to work on it, I would love that we had [docu-series] Chef’s Table. I think that’s just fantastic television.”

But was there a big fish that wiggled off the hook?

“There’s one show that we developed and didn’t put on that was the one that got away, and that was Breaking Bad,” Schrier said to gasps in the audience.

Breaking Bad was a show we developed,” he said of the series that went on to critical acclaim on AMC and later spawned a successful spinoff , Better Call Saul.

“But we were the white male anti-hero network at that time,” Schrier said. “We had The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. We weren’t sure another show in that space would work for us. So we passed on it, and it went on to be what it is.

“I think it is one of the best television shows of all time,” he added. “So, that was a bummer.”

The lesson? “Go with your gut, and don’t outthink yourself,” Grad said.

“Everybody who sits here will have one of those stories,” Schrier continued, having noted earlier that FX also passed on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and American Idol. “Breaking Bad is a pretty bad one, but we lived. We still have jobs.”

— Jeff Baumgartner

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.