AT&T will buy Time Warner for $86 billion. Now what?


Leadership is up in the air. But also, regulators may still stop the deal.

It’s a done deal. AT&T will buy Time Warner for $86 billion, the two companies said Saturday, the largest media deal since AOL merged with Time Warner 16 years ago.

Whether you think it’s a bad idea or a good one — or at least one that can be rationalized — it’s a big win for Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes and the investors. AT&T is offering $107.50 a share, a 36 percent premium to Wednesday’s closing price, the day before Bloomberg News first reported the pending acquisition.

So what next?

Who runs the content?

Bewkes is retiring, as the Wall Street Journal reported. Not a huge surprise for the 64-year-old, who’s been planning an exit for the past few years, sources say. An opportunity came up two years ago when Rupert Murdoch offered $85 a share to combine Time Warner with Fox, but that wasn’t going to happen. Bewkes felt he could get a higher price (which he now has), but, more importantly, he estimated the culture clash would have been disastrous. Can you imagine CNN and Fox News under the same roof?

John Martin, who runs the Turner division that includes CNN and all the NBA games you see on TNT and TBS, is a contender to run Time Warner assets under AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. He knows the business and has interesting ideas about how to tackle TV’s transition to the internet.

Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO, likely isn’t going anywhere. He runs a prized property within Time Warner, largely seen as the originator of “original content,” which TV execs simply call programming. Still, if AT&T is going to win the internet, it’ll need more of what HBO produces.

Kevin Tsujihara, who runs Warner Bros., may be on a bit of a bubble, if this story from the Hollywood Reporter rings true. Peter Chernin, a Hollywood veteran, has had ties with AT&T through his Otter Media ventures, and he could be tapped to run Time Warner’s studio operations. But sources suggest any move by Chernin might require his new employer to absorb (a.k.a. buy) his various enterprises, including his production company Chernin Group.

Will the government let the deal go through?

There’s a chance the deal doesn’t pass regulatory muster. AT&T will hold up Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal and argue something to the effect of, hey, you let this happen, why not our deal? precedent.

But given the unending consumer complaints about the price and performance of mobile and broadband services, government regulators may not reward AT&T.

(If it does go through, ignore the amateur analysis suggesting AT&T would offer Time Warner content to its mobile customers free of any data caps. Regulators would draw a clear line on that kind of practice. Verizon, certainly, would have something to say about that.)

If the government blocks the deal, look for other programmers to try and buy Time Warner. A programmer merger would make much more strategic sense.

Les Moonves, who runs CBS, has over the past few years looked for possible ways to merge with Time Warner. The idea had been floated for years by analysts, investors and, yes, reporters. The two companies already work together on producing sports telecasts and a tie-up would create a competitive content arsenal.

Of course, there’s been a recent hitch: The family that controls both CBS and Viacom wants the two companies to merge.

If regulators block AT&T, Moonves may want to try and combine the new CBS-Viacom with Time Warner. That may sound like a massive media tie-up that would alert regulators (and it would), but even that combination would still make it smaller than Disney (owner of ABC and ESPN) and Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal (an investor in Recode parent company Vox Media.)

Speaking of Disney, CEO Bob Iger might also want to kick the tires on Time Warner. Like CBS, Disney’s TV business is fueled by sports rights via ESPN. A tie-up could create a must-see sports lineup.

Lastly, and least likely, you might see Rupert Murdoch come back with another offer if AT&T is rebuffed. Call it Rupert’s revenge. It would be a last resort … but wouldn’t it be fun?

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