Randall Stephenson, chief executive of telecommunications giant AT&T, said selling CNN in order to push through his company’s $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner has never been and will never be on the table.
“I have never offered to sell CNN,” he said repeatedly. “There is absolutely no intention that we would ever sell CNN.”
Speaking at The New York Times’ DealBook conference in New York — a day after tensions over AT&T’s negotiations with the Justice Department spilled into the open — Stephenson said that selling the cable news network, which President Donald Trump has accused of bias, “doesn’t make sense in the context of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Stephenson said Thursday the Justice Department had never told AT&T that selling CNN was the price of getting the deal done.
Since last November’s election, Stephenson has met with Trump several times.
But Stephenson said he has not, to the best of his recollection, had conversations with people inside the administration about the deal.
To a question — posed by a CNN reporter in the crowd — about whether the pall over the deal can be attributed in part to a “Trump factor,” Stephenson said no.
If completed, the acquisition of Time Warner — the owner of HBO, Warner Bros. and CNN — would transform AT&T into a colossus capable of both producing content and distributing it to millions of people via its wireless and satellite services.
But Wednesday, negotiations between the companies and the Justice Department appeared to be mired in politics.
Accounts of AT&T’s meeting with antitrust officials Monday — which Stephenson said was “very productive” — have differed. In one, Justice Department officials called on the company to sell Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, or DirecTV — the satellite television provider AT&T purchased two years ago for nearly $49 billion — for the Time Warner deal to proceed.
Another version involved Stephenson offering to sell the news channel. Stephenson on Wednesday and again on Thursday denied making such an overture.
“This is a classic vertical merger,” Stephenson told The Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin. “There are no overlaps of competition. There are no competitors being taken out of the competition. There hasn’t been one of these challenged in the courts and defeated in 40 years.”
The deal is designed to help AT&T counter slowing growth in its core wireless, internet and satellite businesses while fending off online video upstarts like Netflix and Hulu.
“The idea that somehow we’re going to take distribution and content and create something so powerful that it would disrupt Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix, it’s comical to be honest,” he said. “We’re trying build a platform that allows us to compete with those guys.”