Judge clears AT&T takeover of Time Warner

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Regulators will still likely scrutinize similar deals, and there is no guarantee that the district court's approval of AT&T's merger with Time Warner means that other major media acquisitions would be approved, several antitrust attorneys told Reuters.

"With the recent repeal of net neutrality, AT&T now has the ability to block or throttle any online content that competes with Time Warner programming", Michael Copps, former FCC commissioner and special adviser with Common Cause, said in a statement reacting to the judge's ruling.

Shares of other media and telecom companies also rose, including T-Mobile US Inc, Sprint Corp, CBS Corp, Dish Network Corp, Discovery Inc and Viacom Inc. Instead, a rush to consolidate is likely. Time Warner, after all, was one-half of one of the worst mergers in history when combined with AOL at the top of the tech bubble.

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that AT&T can move forward with its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. The sheer scale of the deal is what led the Justice Department to file an antitrust lawsuit to try to prevent the merger.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon announced the decision Tuesday, bringing the biggest antitrust trial in years to an end.

In a scathing opinion, Leon concluded that the government had failed to show competitive harm and urged the USA government not to seek a stay of his ruling pending a potential appeal, saying it would be "manifestly unjust" to do so and not likely to succeed. Netflix, which had a market value of around $20.6 billion in 2014, is now worth $158.5 billion, surpassing the market value of all the legacy media companies.

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"All I know is that this will be a blockbuster summer for media mergers".

After almost two years, AT&T is on the cusp of completing its acquisition of Time Warner, a deal it struck in a bid to become an entertainment giant that can feed Time Warner programming like HBO and CNN to its 119 million mobile, internet and video customers, and go head-to-head with Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

"This decision could make it extremely hard for the antitrust agencies to fulfill their congressionally mandated duty to promote competition and prevent mergers that may substantially lessen competition", Mr. Nadler said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ruling suggests Judge Leon is adapting to the times.

If Leon approves the deal, the phone and pay-TV giant would be allowed to absorb the owner of CNN, HBO, the Warner Bros. movie studio, "Game of Thrones", coveted sports programming and other "must-see" shows.

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He had the option of rejecting the deal outright or demanding certain conditions, including that AT&T sell some of Time Warner's assets.

The Writers Guild of America West called Leon's decision a "blow to consumers, content creators and competition".

But the DOJ's loss could spur companies to gobble up their competitors in the same sector - transactions known as horizontal deals - particularly as they seek to compete more aggressively with AT&T.

Using unusually strong language, he discouraged the Justice Department from asking him to put the ruling on hold while it considers an appeal.

Cornell law professor George Hay added that the ruling found the government's evidence lacking, rather than a broader determination of how vertical mergers affected competition.

Number three wireless carrier T-Mobile, meanwhile, is seeking a tie-up with number four Sprint. Comcast and Verizon are also jockeying for position in the new landscape. Looming in the background of the deal has been Trump's long-running feud with Time Warner's CNN, which he has often derided as "failing" and a purveyor of "fake news". The companies' CEOs, AT&T's Randall Stephenson and Jeffrey Bewkes of Time Warner Inc., testified in support of the deal.

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Government lawyers had argued that the takeover would hurt innovation and allow AT&T to charge rival providers more for its must-have content - costs that would ultimately be passed on to consumers. Post-merger, AT&T rivals like Charter Communications and Cox, which now pay Time Warner for its channels, would suddenly also become AT&T's customers.

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