WASHINGTON – The US Department of Justice sued AT&T Inc on Monday to block its $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc, saying the deal could raise prices for rivals and pay-TV subscribers.
The legal challenge came after AT&T rejected a demand by the Justice Department earlier this month to divest its DirecTV unit or Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting – which contains news network CNN – in order to win antitrust approval.
The Justice Department said AT&T would use Time Warner’s films and movies to force rival pay TV companies to pay “hundreds of millions of dollars more per year for Time Warner’s networks” in its lawsuit filed late Monday in federal court in Washington.
The government also argued that AT&T would use Time Warner content to slow the industry’s transition to online video and other innovative distribution models.
AT&T described the lawsuit as ”a radical and inexplicable departure from decades of antitrust precedent,” according to AT&T head lawyer David McAtee. He said so-called vertical mergers, between companies that are not direct competitors, are routinely approved.
”We see no legitimate reason for our merger to be treated differently,” said McAtee, adding that AT&T is confident a judge will reject the Justice Department’s case.
Time Warner’s shares dropped 1.1 percent to close at $87.71, while AT&T shares closed up 0.4 percent at $34.64.
The No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier struck a deal in October 2016 to buy Time Warner, which also owns the premium channel HBO and movie studio Warner Bros, so it can bundle video entertainment on its mobile service.
AT&T says that would help it compete with emerging technology companies such as Netflix Inc, Amazon.com Inc’s Prime Video and other competitors.
The deal instantly became a political lightning rod. Donald Trump, a frequent critic of Time Warner’s CNN, attacked the merger on the campaign trail last year, vowing that as president his Justice Department would block it.
The deal is also opposed by an array of consumer groups and smaller television networks on the grounds that it would give AT&T too much power over the content it would distribute to its wireless customers.
Reuters reported earlier this month that the Justice Department believed the merger would raise costs for rival entertainment distributors and stifle innovation and could allow AT&T to withhold key content from HBO, CNN or other of its channels from competitors.
Last week, the Justice Department had approached 18 state attorneys general asking them to join the challenge of the deal, but as of Monday none had publicly agreed to do so, Reuters reported.
During his campaign, Trump said that reporters had covered him unfairly and has continued to attack CNN as president, which he has labeled as “fake news.” He has not commented on the AT&T deal since his inauguration in January.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to say last week if anyone from the White House had discussed the merger with any Justice Department officials.