The companies behind two pending mega mergers with the potential to dramatically alter the U.S. telecom market will have to wait a little while longer to find out if they have the blessing of regulators.
The Federal Communications Commission said in a filing on Wednesday that it is “suspending the pleading cycles” and pausing its self-imposed “180-day informal time clock” deadline for the reviews of Comcast’s proposed $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable, and of AT&T’s $48.5 billion deal to buy DirecTV, both announced earlier this year.
The FCC is stopping the clock in order to decide how they will deal with as issue related to “highly confidential” agreements between the respective pay-TV companies and various content providers, including broadcasters such as CBS and Twenty-First Century Fox, which the regulators had hoped to review. However, the FCC says that “certain third-party programmers” object to the idea of anyone at the FCC, along with any lawyers or outside experts, viewing the confidential content agreements. The content providers apparently fear that operational information in the agreements will somehow fall into the hands of their competitors, while regulators at the FCC argue that access to the agreements is crucial to their ability to review the potential mergers.
Now, the FCC says it will take an indefinite pause to consider and rule on the content providers’ objections to regulators and others connected to the FCC gaining access to the documents. The FCC still had roughly 100 days left before hitting its own deadline in both reviews, in which regulators are deciding whether or not the respective deals are in the public’s best interest.
Both potential deals have been met with their share of opposition from people who feel that so much consolidation among telecoms will result in fewer choices for U.S. consumers. The Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger has also been opposed by Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen, who lobbied the FCC to block the deal on the grounds that it would be “anti-competitive.” In August, the FCC also requested further information on Comcast’s broadband business and how the company manages web traffic.
Meanwhile, an AT&T spokesman told Fortune that it is normal for the FCC to pause its review clock and the company still expects its deal to be completed in the first half of 2015. “The FCC’s decision to stop the clock has nothing to do with the merits of our deal or the information we’ve provided them on the significant public interest benefits,” the company said in a statement. “As the FCC’s order makes clear, this relates to content companies’ concerns about the confidentiality of the information they provide the FCC.”
Comcast did not immediately return a request for comment.
(Update: This article has been updated with a statement from AT&T.)