With the U.S. Justice Department seeking to block the combination of AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc., a Senate Democrat is asking whether the department should also revisit the 2011 merger of Comcast Corp. and NBCUniversal Media LLC.
In a Dec. 13 letter sent to Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's antitrust division, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for an investigation into the anticompetitive threat consumers will face if Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal is allowed to remain in place after the conditions the department put on the deal expire in 2018. When Comcast first bought NBCUniversal, both the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department placed a number of conditions on the deal, including requiring the companies to license programming to online competitors and make anti-retaliation commitments. Those conditions, however, generally expire next year.
Blumenthal said that in the years since the Comcast/NBC deal closed, over the past six years, the acquisition has been "roundly criticized by experts who argue that it has caused anticompetitive harm despite the conditions that were imposed on it." In light of these complaints, Blumenthal said the Department of Justice should investigate whether the acquisition can be allowed to stand without the conditions that currently govern it.
"If your investigation determines that the Comcast–NBCU acquisition will produce anticompetitive effects, even if the merger conditions are retained, you may need to consider separating Comcast and NBCU in order to fully restore competition," Blumenthal wrote.
Before the November 2016 election, Trump said his administration would block the AT&T/Time Warner transaction because "it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few." He compared it to Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal, saying, "Deals like this destroy democracy, and we'll look at breaking that deal up."
Similar to how Comcast's purchase of NBC brought together a distributor and a content owner, AT&T is looking to combine its nationwide wireless network and nationwide DIRECTV satellite television operations with the cable networks of Time Warner in a transaction valued at $106.40 billion, including debt. But in a lawsuit filed in November, the Justice Department has argued the combination would give the resulting entity too much power in the pay TV and online video marketplace, a claim AT&T and others dispute.