XM and Sirius: satellite sisters?

by James Surowiecki, New Yorker

When the satellite-radio companies XM and Sirius announced, last month, that they were planning to merge, it looked like a futile attempt to flout antitrust regulations. The merger would benefit Sirius and XM—which, despite signing high-profile figures like Howard Stern and Bob Dylan, have cumulatively lost close to seven billion dollars—but it would confront radio listeners with a satellite-radio monopoly. Not surprisingly, then, when Sirius’s C.E.O., Mel Karmazin, appeared before Congress to defend his plans, he was grilled by legislators convinced that regulators would block the merger. The deal, though, is far from dead. Thanks to an intellectual revolution that, over the past three decades, has transformed the way the government assesses mergers and monopolies, we may yet end up with only one satellite-radio provider in America. And, surprisingly, we may be all the better for it.

Antitrust law in the U.S. rests on two documents—the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act and the 1914 Clayton Act. Their underlying principles are clear (competition and lower prices are good, collusion and price-fixing bad), but the laws themselves are remarkably vague, and regulators have had much leeway in enforcing them. In the era after the Second World War, for instance, the government took an aggressive stand against mergers. In 1962, it blocked a deal between the third-largest shoe company in the country and the eighth-largest, even though the new company would have owned just five per cent of the shoe market. A few years later, it barred two California supermarkets from merging, despite the fact that together they controlled less than ten per cent of the market and had many competitors. Bigness, regulators seemed to assume, was always bad.

The idea that if mergers were bad for competition they were bad for the economy was intuitively appealing. But it wasn’t always accurate, as a group of law professors and economists, usually called the Chicago School, set out to show in the nineteen-seventies. Much antitrust regulation, they argued, did not benefit the economy but just protected small businesses; it could even make consumers worse off. (Most obviously, economies of scale allow bigger companies to produce more for less, which can lead to lower prices.) This meant that regulators should scrutinize deals through a different lens: if a merger reduced competition but enhanced “consumer welfare,” it should be approved. Later economists have complicated these arguments—there’s now a post-Chicago School—but the idea that mergers should be measured by their impact on “consumer welfare” remains central to antitrust law.

Even by these standards, though, the XM-Sirius deal looks sketchy, since monopolies created by merger are usually bad for consumers. So why does the deal have any chance at all? It comes down to the question of what market XM and Sirius are in. If it’s just satellite radio, then they are competing only with each other and the deal would be sure to send prices soaring. But it makes more sense to see XM and Sirius as part of the bigger radio and digital audio markets and thus in competition with AM/FM, HD, and Internet radio. In that case, even a merged company would have only a small percentage of radio listeners, and competition would limit its ability to raise prices.
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Consumers, then, have little to fear from a merged satellite company in the radio market, and they may actually have a lot to gain. Dominated by chains like Clear Channel, AM/FM radio has become a catalogue of bland choices, pre-programmed playlists, and syndicated talk. A recent study by the Future of Music Coalition found that four companies received fifty per cent of all radio advertising revenue and had nearly fifty per cent of all listeners. Even among competitors, there is often tremendous overlap in music playlists; in this environment, XM and Sirius, which offer real diversity across three hundred channels, are a gain for consumer choice. And there’s no reason to think that this diversity would ebb after a merger; no one wants to pay thirteen dollars a month to hear the same songs he could have got free from his local KISS-FM.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents commercial radio stations, has lobbied hard against the deal, arguing that XM and Sirius compete only with each other. But the very fact that broadcasters are fighting the merger demonstrates that they view Sirius and XM as a threat. Similarly, for fifteen years AM/FM stations have done everything they could to cripple satellite radio, lobbying the F.C.C. to stop its roll-out in the nineteen-nineties and persistently trying to limit the types of programming XM and Sirius can carry. Just last month, a bill was introduced in Congress—for the third time in as many years—that would bar satellite stations from providing local traffic and weather.

Broadcasters understand that a merger between Sirius and XM would help extend satellite radio’s reach, making it a more formidable competitor. Many consumers have hesitated to subscribe to satellite because they didn’t know which company would survive. And desirable content is split between the companies: if you want major-league baseball and Bob Edwards, you need XM, but if you want N.F.L. games and Howard Stern, you need Sirius. Allowing Sirius and XM to merge would eliminate this problem in one stroke. And that would significantly increase the competitive pressure on traditional radio stations, perhaps forcing them to abandon their cookie-cutter model. Paradoxically, by reducing choice you could stimulate more diversity. Sometimes, it seems, you can have fewer competitors but more competition. ♦

article originally published at http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2007/03/19/070319ta_talk_surowiecki.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey