AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said Thursday he was never told by the Department of Justice that the price of getting the company’s massive merger with Time Warner approved would be to sell CNN, nor did he offer to divest the news network.
Stephenson spoke at the Dealbook conference a day after reports surfaced that antitrust officials were asking AT&T to divest Time Warner’s Turner cable division, which includes CNN, or AT&T’s DirecTV, as a condition of approval.
That triggered an immediate outcry from Capitol Hill Democrats and others that the DOJ was being influenced by President Donald Trump’s unhappiness with CNN’s coverage. Stephenson, pressed by moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin, also said he “no reason to believe” that President Trump was interfering in the merger review because of his oft-stated animus toward CNN and its coverage of his administration.
“I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN,” Stephenson said. “And likewise I have never offered to sell CNN. There is absolutely no intention that we would ever sell CNN. So take those two off the table.”
He declined to elaborate on just what was said in a Monday meeting with antitrust officials, but said that the company was prepared to go to court to fight any federal effort to block the deal. AT&T and Time Warner have long made the case that the merger is a vertical combination of assets with virtually no overlapping businesses — meaning that no competitors will be taken out of the market. AT&T has no other news operation, which means there’s little anti-trust case to be made that selling CNN should be a condition of approval.
“It’s time to settle, or it’s time to go to court,” Stephenson said. He emphasized that it’s been more than a year since AT&T clinched its $85.4 billion merger deal with Time Warner, in October 2016, and that it’s time for action one way or another. Employees at Time Warner have been dealing with uncertainty about the future for too long, he added.
The deadline for AT&T or Time Warner tabling the initial merger agreement is April 22, which happens to be his birthday, Stephenson said.
Stephenson noted the importance of CNN and Turner to the rationale of the merger. He said AT&T was not open to selling any major component parts of Time Warner — HBO, Turner or Warner Bros. “It’s illogical,” he said. He pointed to the competitive challenges that traditional media face from tech giants a la Facebook and Google who are increasingly moving to the content and distribution realm.
“Anybody who follows this industry knows that concentration of power is the least [of the] problems in this industry,” Stephenson said. “This is an industry going through incredible disruption.”