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FCC to big media mergers: Not so fast

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and DirecTV, all in the final days of merger review, will have to wait a little longer to find out if they can hook up.

The FCC paused its 180-day informal review “shot clock” for both mergers on Friday because of a pending court case that could give the commission access to the confidential business deals that distribution companies cut with program providers.

It’s not unusual for the FCC to pause the shot clock; the agency does it all the time for a lot of reasons, mostly to ask for more information.

In this particular case, some of the information the agency wanted to look at, the programming carriage agreements between the companies and programmers like Viacom, Disney and 21st Century Fox, is highly sensitive, so sensitive, that the companies sued, worried that the FCC wouldn’t be able to keep the records from third parties commenting on the mergers.

The case was argued in late February and a decision could come any day now, but until then, the FCC is putting on the brakes.

“At this time, we believe it is prudent to pause the informal 180-day transaction clocks because the commission would be advantaged by knowing the resolution of the pending Petition for Review before the transaction clocks reach the 180-day mark, which both are slated to do by the end of March,” said the FCC in a particularly wonky press release.

This is the third time the FCC has paused its $45 billion review of Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger review, which is at day 165. AT&T’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV, announced after Comcast, paused only once before, is on day 170, and will likely get the final word from regulators first.

The Department of Justice is also reviewing the mergers.

The companies are used to merger review delays. “We understand the FCC’s decision to pause the informal review clock,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president of government communications.

If you believe the chatter in town, AT&T-DirecTV will be approved first. The fate of a Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal, the target of a vigorous campaign against it, has led some Wall Street analysts to trim their estimate of the odds for approval.