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Free HBO And All That Data: Dissecting The AT&T Time Warner Decision

Despite all the theatrics around the reading of the verdict– No cellphones! Reporters dashing out old school style to file their stories, fedoras flying!–the actual verdict itself does not come as a surprise to anyone except maybe the DOJ’s attorneys. And even they must have realized their case was pretty weak.

If nothing else, given how much runway had been cleared to allow the very conservative Sinclair Broadcast group, owner of a network-sized passel of local affiliates, to merge with Tribune Media and create an even larger passel–and given that the DOJ had not really been able to show how the merger might hurt consumers (it won’t–it might hurt other networks, but consumers will come out fine)– there wasn’t a whole lot of leg for them to stand on.

What Now?

There are the more obvious ramifications, like putting Comcast back into play as a bidder for Fox, and then there are the less obvious ones.

5G and Zero Rating

So in addition to being the largest pay TV company thanks to its purchase of Direct TV, AT&T is also the second largest mobile carrier, trailing Verizon by about 8 million users, 151.5M to 143.8M. That’s a whole lot of users. And, thanks to the FCC’s dismantling of net neutrality, AT&T can take advantage of something called “zero rating” which means that content it owns won’t count against the user’s data cap. So imagine AT&T giving free CNN and free HBO to every AT&T wireless subscriber. Not a bad deal with 4G, but when you bump speeds up to 5G, everything changes. If 5G can handle broadband (and we have no reason to think it can’t) then AT&T can offer full-on pay-TV packages with some flavor of DirecTV Now and HBO thrown in for free. That’s a seriously compelling come-on, especially when all Verizon’s got to offer is Oath.

So there’s that.

All That Data

The other piece here is that the Time Warner networks can get their hands on a whole world of viewership data. You see because they had no direct relationship with their viewers (the MVPDs owned that), CNN, TNT, TBS et al had no data about them. As in they didn’t have email addresses or IP addresses or device IDs. AT&T has all of that, of course, and can easily provide them with it. That will make it easier for them to better target ads (in a way their competitors can’t) and to make better programming decisions. They can even start running better targeted addressable ads.

The only dark cloud on that sunny picture is that when Comcast bought NBCU, the FCC put all sorts of restrictions on them as to the kinds of data they could share with NBCU and how they couldn’t treat NBCU differently than everyone else.

Those restriction expire in December however, and it seems unlikely the current FCC will impose them on AT&T or re-impose them on Comcast.

So there’s that too, and that has the potential to really change up the game, introducing real ad targeting and data-driven decision-making and forcing the other networks and MVPDs to figure out a way to play nice together.

But keep your eye on the data piece–it’s the part the government and mainstream press understand least and so most likely to slip under everyone’s radar.

Everyone else’s radar, anyway.

Stay tuned.