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At some point in the future, the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division will rule on AT&T Inc.'s (T) proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc. (TWX) .

When it does, it's likely no one will be entirely happy with the decision. For the moment, AT&T and Time Warner remain fully committed to the deal despite the passage this weekend of a 12-month deadline that would have allowed either party to step back from the transaction.

Both companies, though, apparently accept that tearing up the merger proposal probably would send their respective stock prices tumbling and roil their business plans. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson continues to argue that his company will be far better off owning HBO, the Warner Bros. studio and, yes, CNN, while Time Warner head Jeff Bewkes continues to preach the benefits of wider distribution through AT&T's wireless business.

Stephenson may shed a bit of light on the merger when AT&T reports earnings after the closing bell on Tuesday, Oct. 24. Time Warner will follow suit Thursday before markets open.

Unlike the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, the DOJ's Antitrust Division is a black box. While the FCC holds monthly meetings in which commissioners talk to each other in polite language despite visceral disagreements and the agency posts lots of documents to chronicle its decision-making, the DOJ does nothing of that sort.

As a result, it's been difficult to get much insight into whether antitrust officials are anywhere near issuing a ruling on AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner. Given that the FCC under Ajit Pai has opted not to review the transaction, it would stand to reason that the regulators would have made a decision in under a year. But this hasn't been a typical presidential administration.

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And while it's true that Makan Delrahim, an attorney who has represented AT&T as well as Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) Google, was only confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 27 to head the antitrust division, career staffers at the DOJ have been studying the deal for while. So it's important not to read too much into the delay.

It's not unusual for the DOJ to take a year or so before making a decision on as large a transaction as AT&T-Time Warner. The department, for example, took about a year to rule on Comcast Corp.'s (CMCSA) attempted acquisition of Time Warner Cable Inc. Charter Communications Inc. (CHTR) ultimately purchased Time Warner Cable in May 2016, with that deal closing nearly a year after its announcement.

Andrew Finch, a partner at New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP who was appointed in April by the DOJ to serve as acting assistant attorney general of the Antitrust Division, has been shepherding the deal in recent months. Finch now will serve as Delrahim's deputy.

The real question may not be whether the deal is approved. With a Republican in the White House, it's all but certain that a merger between two large, well-connected corporations will be sanctioned. Instead, it's more likely that the deal will be approved with conditions. Namely, a requirement that AT&T make Time Warner's content -- HBO, for instance -- readily available to other pay-TV providers on easy terms.

The blueprint, of course, is Comcast's 2011 acquisition of a majority stake in NBCUniversal, which mandated it couldn't withhold NBC programming, regional sports networks or both from competitors for certain periods of time. 

Alphabet and Comcast are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer and the AAP team buy or sell GOOGL and CMCSA? Learn more now.

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