Why the AT&T-Time Warner Merger Is Bad for Small Channels

AT&T’s decision to quietly pull Televisión Dominicana is a harbinger of what could happen if regulators approve this merger.

When AT&T announced its intent to buy Time Warner last October, the Washington Post predicted the birth of “a media titan the likes of which America has never seen.” If approved by regulators—a big if, since the Justice Department has sued to block the merger—it’s a deal that would consolidate the nation’s pay TV provider with an entertainment giant, giving AT&T unprecedented control over programming and content. AT&T seeks to do more than just passively distribute content to its subscribers—it wants to control what channels are available to consumers.

In early September, AT&T previewed the potential harmful consequences of this merger, quietly pulling Televisión Dominicana from its U-verse and DirecTV platforms, at the expense of millions of Dominican-Americans who rely on its programming as a key news source and cultural tie. Suspending Televisión Dominicana is more than just a bad PR move for AT&T—if the merger is approved, smaller, independent channels like Televisión Dominicana could be dropped in favor of Time Warner content, or other more lucrative channels. In controlling the platforms through which consumers get content, AT&T would have an enormous amount of power to decide what airs and what doesn’t.

Televisión Dominicana is a small network, but for the over 2.4 million Dominican-Americans—the country’s fourth largest Hispanic diaspora—it’s an essential source of news and entertainment about their homeland. In a particularly cruel twist of fate, Dominican-Americans customers of U-verse and DirecTV were unable to access the channel to follow news and updates about the Dominican Republic just as Hurricanes Irma and Maria lashed the island in September.

AT&T’s move was especially troubling for Representative Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat and the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, who represents a predominantly Latino district in upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx. Rep. Espaillat is fervently opposed to the merger, and has written to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to highlight the need to “closely scrutinize [the] transaction to protect diversity and competition in the media market.” Since 1996, the FCC is supposed to promote diverse voices on air by facilitating policies that favor competition. The  congressman worries that this merger risks further neglecting television channels that specifically cater to small, underserved communities, reducing choice for consumers in the increasingly consolidated cable and telecom industry.

Espaillat is especially critical of AT&T’s seemingly indifferent attitude towards protecting small, independent voices on air, to which AT&T offers little consolation. Eric Ryan, a spokesperson for AT&T, countered that the company is dedicated to providing “the most relevant and engaging content available,” and that requires adding or removing programming according to consumers’ desires.

In July, congressional Democrats introduced “A Better Deal,” a new party platform that vows to crack down on corporate monopolies, including in the cable and telecom industry, where consumers rarely have any actual choice of provider. The rise in mergers and corporate consolidation isn’t just bad for competition, it has wide-ranging, troublesome repercussions. If other smaller networks experience the same fate as Televisión Dominicana, it would mean less even visibility for groups who already lack representation in media and popular culture.

AT&T has made vague promises that the merger will result in a more efficient and innovative service for its subscribers, but that could come at a steep cost for smaller, independent networks. Televisión Dominicana has made efforts to continue distributing the channel, but the alternatives proposed by AT&T are “limited and more expensive for the Dominican community,” said Katherine Pichardo Erskine, a spokesperson for the channel. The removal of Televisión Dominicana indicates that the telecom giant does not value the interests of minority communities enough to sustain a crucial source of both entertainment and information. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come if legislators and regulators neglect the interests of consumers to cave to the financial motives of corporate giants.

The threat of consolidation haunts all facets of the economy, from the beer industry dominated by just two gargantuan brewers, to Amazon’s growing stranglehold over e-commerce. If Democrats indeed follow through with their promises in “A Better Deal,” it could signal an actual attempt to bust these destructive monopolies. If not, spaces for independent voices like Televisión Dominicana will even become smaller and more difficult to access until they’re lost to a corporate monolith for good.

Olivia White

Olivia White is an intern at Washington Monthly.