The Department of Justice (DOJ) and six broadcast television companies reached settlements last week after the DOJ claimed that the companies shared competitively sensitive information that allowed the parties to alter the way prices were set in the television spot advertising market. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim explained in a speech at the ABA Antitrust Section Fall Forum on November 15 that the government’s investigation was triggered by information produced in the merger investigation of two of the defendants, Sinclair and Tribune, which was abandoned earlier this year. The case has important implications for companies and serves as a cautionary tale related to information sharing.WHAT HAPPENED:
- The investigation reportedly began from DOJ’s review of the $3.9 billion proposed acquisition of Tribune by Sinclair earlier this year. The parties abandoned the merger this past summer after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) referred the matter to an administrative law judge and delayed approval.
- On November 13, DOJ filed a complaint and competitive impact statement against six television broadcast station companies, each of whom sells spot advertising to advertisers in the US or owns and operates broadcast television stations. With the complaint, DOJ simultaneously filed six proposed settlements with defendants.
- The complaint alleges that the defendants and other broadcasters reciprocally exchanged revenue pacing information and other forms of competitively sensitive sales information in specific designated marketing areas in real time for each individual competitor. Pacing information shows a station’s remaining advertising inventory and that station’s performance compared to the market.
- DOJ claimed that the information sharing occurred both directly between parties and through Sales Reps Firms, who represent broadcast stations in negotiations with advertisers or advertisers’ agents over spot advertising. This indirect sharing occurred despite the existence of firewalls to prevent coordination and information sharing between sales teams at the Sales Reps Firms representing competing stations. DOJ claimed that the exchanges occurred with defendants’ knowledge and frequently at defendants’ instruction.
- As a result of the information sharing, DOJ argued that the stations were able to understand the availability of spot advertisement inventory on competitors’ stations in real time. DOJ also argued that the stations used the information to anticipate whether other companies would raise, maintain, or lower prices for spot advertising. The information exchanges therefore “distorted the normal price-setting mechanism in the spot advertising market and harmed the competitive process” and were unreasonable restraints of interstate trade and commerce.
- The settlements that are proposed by DOJ prohibit defendants from sharing competitively sensitive information directly or indirectly. The settlements require defendants to institute antitrust compliance officers, and compliance and reporting programs, and to fully cooperate in the DOJ’s ongoing investigation. The final judgments are set to expire seven years from the date of entry, but give DOJ the ability to terminate after five years.
- The proposed settlements indicate that DOJ recognizes certain allowable exchanges of information. DOJ explains that aggregated competitively sensitive information may be communicated if it is [...]