Comcast, Time Warner merger was 'unacceptable risk'

What killed Comcast Corp.'s $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable? Regulators' desire to protect the Internet video industry that is reshaping TV.

A combination of the No. 1 and No. 2 U.S. cable companies would have put nearly 30 percent of TV and about 55 percent of broadband subscribers under one roof, along with NBCUniversal, giving the resulting behemoth unprecedented power over what Americans watch and download.

Competitors, consumer groups, and politicians have criticized the deal, saying it would lead to higher prices and less choice.

"The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation, including to the ability of online video providers to reach and serve consumers," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a written statement.

The Justice Department said that Comcast dropped its bid because of regulators' concerns that the Philadelphia-based cable giant would become an "unavoidable gatekeeper" for Internet services.

One of the concerns consumer advocates and competitors had with the Comcast deal was that it could undermine the streaming video industry that is reshaping TV. Comcast could, for example, require onerous payments from new online-only video providers for connecting to its network. Dish, the satellite TV company behind the new Web video service Sling TV, and Netflix opposed the deal.

"It goes to show you how important broadband is," said Amy Yong, a Macquarie analyst.

Regulators have taken other steps that signal how important they consider Internet access. The FCC in February released new "net neutrality" rules meant to keep broadband providers from charging Internet companies for "fast lane" access or favoring some content. The broadband industry has sued to stop the rules.

"We have to live with it, and respect that, and move on," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in an interview on CNBC, referring to the government's opposition to the deal. "We always structured this deal in a way that would enable us to walk away."

Comcast doesn't owe Time Warner Cable a breakup fee because the deal didn't work out.

With the deal between Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc. called off, a transaction with Charter Communications Inc. aimed at smoothing the way for regulatory approval also falls apart. Charter had agreed to form a separate company, with Comcast shareholders as co-owner, that would serve some Comcast customers, including those in the Twin Cities area.

Even with the Comcast and Time Warner Cable deal being nixed, cable companies are likely to keep combining as costs rise for the shows, sports and movies they pipe to subscribers and video customers decrease.

But Time Warner Cable may have a new suitor: Charter.

Charter, the nation's fourth-largest cable company, has begun exploring a bid for Time Warner Cable, the Washington Post reported Friday, citing an industry official familiar with the matter. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because no public announcement has been made. Charter declined to comment.

Charter had pursued a takeover of Time Warner Cable in 2013. It first offered to buy the company for nearly $130 a share. Officials at Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable company, rebuffed the figure, leading Charter to increase its bid to $132 a share.

Comcast then swooped in with a bid of nearly $159 per share, leading to a merger announcement in February 2014.

As recently as February, Charter Chief Executive Thomas Rutledge said he would still be interested in buying Time Warner Cable if it came up again.

"Any platform out there that's available that would allow us to take advantage of scale and unsold passings is attractive to us at the right price," Rutledge told financial analysts on a conference call. Charter serves more than 6 million subscribers with cable, telephone and high-speed Internet services across 29 states.