AT&T and BellSouth merged Friday night shortly after the Federal Communications Commission gave its final approval to the $86 billion merger and a day after two Democratic commissioners wielding unusual clout extracted major concessions to win the deal’s OK. Even as the approval was coming down there was a new warning from Congress that the procedure the FCC used to reach an agreement will bear scrutiny when Democrats arrive this week. “I am pleased to learn that all sides have reached agreement and that the merger will soon close,” said John D. Dingell, D-Mich., incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “At the same time, I have significant concerns over the process followed at the FCC during these final weeks, and believe that such process may be suitable for Committee review.” Mr. Dingell has been upset that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tried to get a third Republican, Commissioner Robert McDowell, to vote. Mr. McDowell, a former telecom lobbyist, recused himself from voting. Friday’s approval puts into AT&T four of the baby bells broken apart by the government in 1984 out of the original AT&T. Consumer groups say concessions made by AT&T could alter the competitive environment not just for AT&T but for its rivals. AT&T agreed not to charge content providers extra for video delivered using new high-speed pipes for 30 months, to aggressively roll out cable alternatives in BellSouth’s area and to require AT&T to provide unbundled DSL service to consumers who don’t want phone lines. -Ira Teinowitz
ESPN’s `MNF’ Sets Viewer Record
ESPN’s first season of “Monday Night Football” ranks as the most-watched series in cable television history, the network said last week. The 17-game season averaged 9.1 million households and 12.3 million total viewers and represented the 17th-largest household audience for cable TV in 2006, according to figures released Thursday. The Dallas-New York Giants game on Oct. 23 is the highest-rated cablecast ever. The “MNF” content on ESPN’s Web site contributed to a 52 percent increase in traffic to the site on Mondays.
Fox Sports to Offer Bowl Games Online
Fox Sports plans to make games from the college football Bowl Championship Series available online. The AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 1 will be simulcast for free on FoxSports.com. Other full-length games will be made available after they’re played for $2.99 online through a number of sites, including Fox Sports on MSN, Fox Interactive Media’s Direct2Drive, Apple’s iTunes and Amazon’s Unbox. Preview shows and shortened highlight packages will be available for $1.99. Fans can get all of the programming for $19.99, or a package dedicated to a specific bowl game for $6.99.
Murdoch, Malone Seal Stock Deal
News Corp. and Liberty Media Corp. have signed off on a multibillion-dollar share-exchange agreement that ends a two-year corporate tug-of-war and secures Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s control over the News Corp. empire. Cable pioneer John Malone’s Liberty, which has been both an ally and a competitor, gave up its 16.3 percent stake in News Corp. in return for Mr. Murdoch’s 38.4 percent stake in satellite TV service DirecTV, regional sports networks in the Northwest, Pittsburgh and the Rocky Mountains, plus $550 million in cash. The agreement puts Liberty, whose holdings include QVC, Encore and Starz, back in the TV distribution business for the first time since Mr. Malone sold cable pioneer Telecommunications Inc. to AT&T in 1998. News Corp. said it plans an $11 billion stock buyback to boost the value of its stock while accomplishing a tax-free divestiture of the DirecTV stake. The transaction, which will need regulatory and shareholder approval, is expected to be completed in the second half of calendar 2007, according to a statement issued Friday.