By Drew FitzGerald and Brent Kendall
AT&T Inc.'s chief executive said Thursday he is prepared to go to court to defend the telecom giant's proposed takeover of Time Warner Inc. if settlement discussions with antitrust regulators fail.
"We are prepared to litigate now" if the companies can't reach a negotiated settlement with the Justice Department, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said at an industry conference Thursday.
Mr. Stephenson said the company would continue to pursue a settlement but was prepared to litigate if it determined that the conditions of such a deal were worse than the outcome of a courtroom fight.
After a long antitrust review, the Justice Department recently raised the prospect that the telecom giant would have to divest either the Turner television unit or the satellite DirecTV business, said people familiar with the matter.
A day after the disagreements between AT&T and the government spilled out into the open, both sides on Thursday appeared to be trying to turn down the temperature to create an environment for more negotiations.
Mr. Stephenson described a meeting with top Justice Department officials on Monday as productive. Meanwhile, a government official close to the negotiations said the Justice Department believed there were many ways to resolve its concerns, and that a sale of Turner or DirecTV weren't the only options. This official said no final decision has been made and the department was in ongoing conversations with the companies.
Mr. Stephenson said he doesn't plan on selling CNN and that no one in the Justice Department had made that a condition of approving the deal.
"I have never been told that the price of getting deal done was selling CNN," Mr. Stephenson said. "I have never offered to sell and have no intentions to sell CNN."
On Wednesday, AT&T's finance chief said the company was no longer certain about when it might close the deal, sending shares of Time Warner tumbling. Shares of Time Warner slipped another 1% to $87.73 in Thursday's trading, while AT&T gained nearly 2% to $34.03. Both stocks have dropped sharply in recent weeks amid concerns about the health of the pay-TV business and the fate of the transaction.
Peeling off a large part of either company could threaten a strategy that AT&T executives have pieced together over several years. The company paid $49 billion to acquire DirecTV and its 20 million subscribers. Last year, it offered $85 billion for Time Warner, counting on the idea that a combination of entertainment, internet and wireless assets could keep customers hooked on its services.
Mr. Stephenson declined to discuss the proposals being made but said he was concerned by "leaks" and media reports that said he had offered to sell CNN in the discussions.
"To have anyone think we are prepared to dump this asset to get this deal done is harmful," he said, especially for employees at CNN. "The people at Time Warner have been sitting here on pins and needles," he added.
The AT&T CEO also sought to dispel the idea that he might agree to shed some larger division of Time Warner to win government approval. "It's illogical," he said, saying media properties like Turner's cable channels and HBO are why the company struck the deal in the first place.
"Now we continue this process and see if we can get to a negotiated settlement," he said.
If it did come to a legal case, Mr. Stephenson said he was confident in the company's legal position and that the litigation could be concluded by April 22, a deadline the merger partners put on the transaction.
Write to Drew FitzGerald at firstname.lastname@example.org and Brent Kendall at email@example.com