They said it couldn't be done. They were right. After months of unremitting pressure from consumer activists and growing scrutiny from regulators, Comcast has abandoned its merger with Time Warner.
The $45 billion deal would have created a massive monolith touching nearly every American in one way or another. More than fears of reduced price and service competition, it was the fear that program producers would be strangled by having to deal with such a powerful distributor that energized opponents.
Opponents warned the merger would set off a new round of consolidation, as cable channels and networks combined forces to strengthen their bargaining positions.
Of course, all this comes as the cable TV business itself begins to unravel. The rapid movement of video programming to the Internet threatens to leave the Comcasts of the world as mere pipes -- conduits through which Netflix, HBO and other producers and packagers reach consumers.
Some economists will tell you that it's when an industry has passed its peak that consolidation sets in. Witness newspapers, which have always been remarkably skilled in staying two paces behind everyone else.
It is only in the last few years that, having consolidated themselves into an amorphous mass, big newspaper companies have conceded the existence of television. They are now rushing to spin off their newspaper properties in a mad rush to buy up TV stations around the country, having not yet noticed that over-the-air TV is about to go the way of the stagecoach.
Comcast finally threw in the towel after the Federal Communications Commission joined the Federal Trade Commission in saying it wanted to take a much closer look at the effect the merger would have. Until this week, both companies had continued to insist the deal would fly, thinking perhaps that the millions of dollars they had spent on lawyers, lobbyists and log-rollers could not possibly have been in vain.
“Today, we move on. Of course, we would have liked to bring our great products to new cities, but we structured this deal so that if the government didn’t agree, we could walk away,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a news release Friday.
Analysts were already speculating that it was Roberts who would be moving on once shareholders realized how much money and competitive advantage had been wasted on the failed attempt.
Time Warner Cable CEO Robert D. Marcus also took comfort from his P.R. staff's ability to spin just about anything in a favorable light.
“Throughout this process, we’ve been laser-focused on executing our operating plan and investing in our plant, products and people,” Marcus said.
Left at the dock is Charter Communications, which had been scheduled to play tugboat and shove off with 4 million subscribers that would have been declared excess ballast by Comcast and Time Warner.