WSJ: Wheeler 'Likely' to Circulate Charter-TWC Approval

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is "likely' to circulate an order approving the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger as early as this week for the four other commissioners to vote on, the Wall Street Journal was reporting late Tuesday (March 15).

An FCC spokesperson declined comment, saying the deal was still under review, though he did point out that the FCC was in day 171 of its informal shot clock on the deal. Multiple industry sources confirmed that their understanding was also that approval with conditions was what the chairman planned to circulate.

Analysts have been predicting a deal approval with online- and broadband buildout-related conditions, was the most likely outcome.

The commissioners still would have to vote on the proposal. But circulating an order would suggest the Justice Department, which is also vetting the deal, did not find any anticompetitive issues that could not be resolved.

The FCC and DOJ generally coordinate their reviews, though the FCC's review goes beyond antitrust issues to look at  public interest considerations.

Filings in the deal docket have suggested the FCC staffers were drilling down on possible conditions, which could include access to online video programming--incuding contractual prohibitions--and overbuilding broadband plant.

The City of New York last week approved the transfer of the TWC franchise to Charter, which that company saw as a positive sign.

Charter has promised to abide by open internet rules and does not have usage fees or data caps, which is has argued was the kind of online-friendly approach the FCC was endorsing, and which it would be extending to Time Warner Cable.

The point Charter has made is that OTT is good for them and consumers since the more widely distributed content is, the cheaper it will be--both to Charter and consumers. That is the other side of the argument that Charter would impede OTT distribution to preserve the exclusivity of its content and thus its attractiveness in a world of exploding choices.

Free Press, which strongly oppose the deal, was characterizing the story as a press leak and hoping it was only test of the waters.

“If this leak to the press was just a trial balloon," said Free Press President Craig Aaron, "Wheeler should pop it. If he’s serious about broadband competition — and he recently admitted he hasn’t done enough to promote it — the Chairman needs to block this disastrous deal and get back to protecting the public interest.”

“The FCC Chairman claims that his mantra is ‘competition, competition, competition.’ Maybe his new slogan should be ‘competition, competition — nevermind.’”

"When you factor in the debt taken on, Charter is paying $10 billion more for Time Warner Cable than Comcast was willing to pay for the same exact assets just over a year ago," he said. "Charter is taking on nearly $27 billion in new debt to finance this deal. It can only recover that by hiking prices for its subscribers.

“This same money could be spent to build new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. If this deal gets approved, however, these billions won’t help build anything. They’ll merely be a payoff to Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will get a $100 million golden parachute for his troubles, while cable customers will be stuck with the tab."

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.