Federal judge approves AT&T-Time Warner merger

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It’s official: AT&T can merge with Time Warner

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that AT&T can move forward with its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

"This decision from Judge Leon will have broad ramifications for the tech, telecommunications and media sector for decades to come", Daniel Ives, the chief strategy officer at GBH Insights, told Business Insider in an email before the decision was handed down. "This deal will accelerate content and streaming initiatives between Time Warner properties and AT&T and be a major shot across the bow to other cable and wireless players with all these assets under one hood".

Leon also said it would be harmful for him to put a temporary stay on the merger while the government appeals his decision, if it does so.

Leon said the government's theory that the merger would give the combined company too much leverage in programming negotiations was "plagued by inconsistencies" and contradicted by the Justice Department's own evidence.

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The US had sued to block the deal, arguing that it would reduce competition in pay TV and lead to higher prices for consumers.

Leon rejected the notion of temporarily suspending the merger for a possible appeal by the government.

The proposed acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T was what's known as a "vertical merger", the integration of two companies in different areas of the economy.

The ruling is also a major blow to Donald Trump's Justice Department.

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The companies have until June 21 to close the merger, per their previously set deadline. The proposed merger was so big and consequential that it forced federal antitrust lawyers to reconsider legal doctrine that permitted mergers of companies that don't directly compete.

"We are disappointed that the court missed an opportunity to rein in the First Amendment-crushing mass media consolidation trend, which puts too much media power in the hands of too few", Manning said in a statement. AT&T has been the nation's largest pay-TV company since it acquired DirecTV in 2015, and is one of the largest providers of home and mobile broadband service.

The government's case hinged on an economic model produced by Carl Shapiro, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, who predicted an annual price increase to consumers of at least $285 million.

In after-market trading following the ruling, shares of Time Warner rose almost 5 percent and AT&T shares fell 1.6 percent.

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AT&T has said it needs to buy Time Warner to compete with the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Google in the shape-shifting streaming-TV environment.

The ruling is expected to unleash more deal-making.

It was reported in May that Comcast was preparing a $60 billion all-cash bid for 21st Century Fox media assets that Disney already agreed to buy for $52 billion in stock. Comcast and Verizon are also jockeying for position in the new landscape. The deal is valued at $108.7 billion, including debt.

The judge rejected the government's argument that the merger would hurt competition in pay TV and cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars more to stream TV and movies.

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Some critics of President Trump have questioned whether the case was brought as political payback against Time Warner's CNN for unfavorable coverage of President Trump, who often called the cable news channel "fake news".

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