Regulators expected to rule on deal before cutoff date

NEW YORK– In another twist to the already knotted DirecTV-Echostar merger saga, DirecTV chief exec Eddy Hartenstein said he would likely walk from the deal if some resolution were not reached by January 21 of next year.

The drop-dead date referred to by Hartenstein would give either company the option of walking away. However, regulators are expected to rule on the deal well before then.

But speaking later in the confab, a frustrated but defiant Echostar CEO Charlie Ergen pounded the table for the $18 billion merger, declining to discuss any contingency plans should the deal fall through.

Hartenstein separately confirmed that DirecTV would consider spinning off some of its satellite capacity to mollify regulators, who are poised to reject the deal over concerns that it would reduce competition in the pay-TV market.

Ergen himself was cagey about any last-minute concessions the companies may be prepared to make. But he entreated regulators to give the company some breathing room to come up with some proposals, which may include the spinoff of capacity to allow another competitor to enter the industry.

“Structural remedies have to include new entrants into the marketplace,” said Ergen, who spoke at the SkyForum trade event in midtown. However, “the key is that we preserve the benefits of the merger – you can’t duplicate spectrum and expect to compete with cable.”

While Ergen didn’t get into the details of such a sale from his end, he did say the remedies he’s mulling “are serious and will be well thought out.”

Ergen also demurred when asked whether he would cut a deal with Cablevision boss Chuck Dolan — who has long harbored aspirations of breaking into satcasting (Daily Variety, Oct. 9). The Echostar boss did note, however, that while Dolan was a “very credible business person,” he would need more than his current, piecemeal satellite scheme to be a viable competitor.

Ergen was less generous in his estimation of News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch, who is said to have lobbied heavily against the merger so that he might make a pass at DirecTV himself. Without referring to the Murdoch directly, Ergen noted that many of the deal’s opponents “really want to be in the business.”

However, Ergen did claim one advantage over the Aussie mogul.

“If God is making this decision, I do like my chances,” he said. “At least compared to Rupert.”

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