Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Scale vs. scope economies and the AT&T-Time Warner merger deal

I've been watching with interest the unfolding news on the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner. The Washington Post has a useful primer Q&A here:
AT&T, the nation's second-largest wireless carrier, is buying Time Warner, the storied media titan that owns HBO, CNN and TBS. In an unprecedented step, the deal is going to combine a gigantic telecom operator — which also happens to be the largest pay-TV company — and a massive producer of entertainment content.
In ECON110, one of the topics we cover includes media economics. The economics of media companies is of interest because it illustrates a bunch of economic concepts, and because their interaction leads to some seemingly-counterintuitive real-world outcomes.

For instance, media content (e.g. movies, television shows, music albums) is subject to substantial economies of scale - the average production cost per consumer of media content falls dramatically as you provide the content to more consumers. This is because the cost of producing content is relatively high, while the cost of distributing that content (especially in the digital age) is extremely low. Large economies of scale (in distribution) tend to favour large media companies over small media companies, since the large media company can distribute to a larger audience at lower cost per-audience-member. In other words, each item of media content gives rise to a natural monopoly.

However, consumers demand a variety of media content, and variety is difficult (and costly) to produce. Every different item of content requires additional scarce inputs (e.g. quality actors, sets, scripts, etc.), and the more novel the item of content the more expensive it will generally be to create. This leads to what is termed diseconomies of scope - the more different items of content that a media company produces, the higher their average costs. Diseconomies of scope (in production) tend to favour smaller media companies that focus on specific content niches.

So, the combination of these (economies of scale and diseconomies of scope) leads to an industry that is characterised by several large media companies producing 'mainstream' content (and usually formed by mergers of previously smaller media companies), as well as many smaller niche providers. If we focused only on the economies of scale, we would be left wondering why the smaller providers continue to survive alongside their larger rivals. It also explains why the offerings of the large media companies are often pretty bland when compared to the offerings of the smaller players - producing something that isn't bland is too costly.

Which brings me to the AT&T-Time Warner merger. This introduces a new element into play. Time Warner is a content provider, and a distributor through traditional media channels (television, etc.). AT&T is not a media company (at least, not yet), but would greatly enhance the potential distribution of Time Warner content. That in itself isn't problematic, and would simply follow previous media mergers focusing on increasing the gains from economies of scale.

The main problem is that AT&T is a gateway to consumers (and a gateway from consumers to content), and that means that the merged entity could significantly reduce competition in the media market. Media consumers value variety (as I noted above), but this merger might make it more difficult (or costly) for AT&T consumers to access that variety. The WaPo article linked above notes:
Here's where it starts to get really interesting. AT&T could charge other companies for the rights to air, say, "Inception" on their networks, or for the use of the Superman brand. Left unchecked, AT&T could abuse this power and force other Web companies, other cable companies, other content companies or even consumers to accept terms they otherwise would never agree to.
One of the things that AT&T might also do is make it costlier for their subscribers to access other content. Of course, they wouldn't frame it that way - they would instead offer a discount on accessing Time Warner content (which effectively makes other content more expensive and shifts consumers towards the Time Warner content).

What happens next? Federal regulators are looking into the deal, and depending on who you read, President-Elect Trump will either block the deal (which markets are anticipating and which he noted during the campaign) or not (based on the makeup of staff within the administration). From the consumers' perspective, let's hope that Trump follows through (this may be the only Trump campaign promise I would make that statement for!).

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