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No, AT&T-Time Warner tie-up won't ax your 'Game of Thrones'

A megamerger joining the telecom giant with a premier programmer has triggered an avalanche of confusion. For one, Time Warner Cable has nothing to do with it

One thing is certain: if AT&T takes over Time Warner, there won't be any "Time Warner" companies to confuse anymore.

Telecom giant AT&T on Saturday signed a deal to buy entertainment giant Time Warner. It's a big deal, in both meanings of the phrase. Valued at $85.4 billion in cash and stock, the acquisition would rank among the biggest takeovers of all time. It would also mean some of your favorite TV shows and films would be owned by a powerful video distributor. AT&T is the No. 2 wireless carrier in the US and owns the No. 1 pay-TV operator by subscribers, DirecTV.

The deal triggered a wave of confusion about what Time Warner actually is and about the kind of power AT&T can wield if they're combined. If you assume that Time Warner owns Time Warner Cable or if you worry that you'll need an AT&T subscription to watch "Game of Thrones," the good news is that your biggest immediate concerns are myths.

The downside is that it's hard to tell what a combined AT&T-Time Warner will actually mean to you. With the deal signed, it's now up to regulators to decide its limits -- if they don't block the combo entirely. Divining those decisions is murky even when you're certain who will reside in the White House next year.

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Programs like HBO's popular "Game of Thrones" aren't likely to become exclusive programming for AT&T or DirecTV.

HBO

That regulatory review is expected to last a year or longer. In the meantime, here's what we know a combined AT&T-Time Warner won't be.

It won't have anything to do with Time Warner Cable

Time Warner is completely separate from Time Warner Cable, the pay-TV and broadband-internet company that tends to plumb lows in customer-service rankings.

Time Warner is a TV and film producer. It makes most of its profit off its Turner collection of basic cable channels, like TBS, TNT, CNN and others. Its other big business are premium cable network HBO and its Warner Bros. studio, which makes films like this year's "Batman v Superman" and "Suicide Squad."

Time Warner spun off Time Warner Cable in 2009. In the years since, people have continually conflated them, a mistake perpetuated by the cable company licensing the "Time Warner" name.

That mix-up should soon be a thing of the past. Apart from AT&T aiming to absorb Time Warner, cable company Charter Communications completed its takeover of Time Warner Cable earlier this year. It is fading out the name for a new one, Spectrum.

It won't pull Time Warner's networks and movies from other ways to watch.

The consumer nightmare goes something like this: AT&T buys Time Warner and throws all its best content into an exclusive, customers-only cage. Suddenly, you have only one place to watch your favorite entertainment, be it HBO's "Game of Thrones," 24-hour cable news network CNN, NBA pro basketball on TNT, or any of the movies involving Hobbits, Harry Potter, Legos or Batman.

That's unlikely.

For one, it would hobble how Time Warner makes money. Like most media companies of its kind, Time Warner's revenue flows from two main streams: advertising revenue and what's known as affiliate fees, the payments by pay-TV providers so they can carry Time Warner's networks.

Removing Time Warner channels from everything but AT&T or DirecTV would mean affiliate fees no longer exist. And limiting TNT or CNN's distribution so sharply would undermine appeal to advertisers, which are always aiming to get commercials in front of the greatest number of eyeballs.

On top of that, no matter how little you trust the government, regulators are extremely likely to put restraints on those practices to grant approval.

The last time a pay-TV giant acquired a major media company, the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission set extra rules on Comcast to take over NBCUniversal in 2009. Terms required Comcast make all NBCU's channels available to competing distributors and said Comcast couldn't favor NBCU's channels in its own pay-TV subscriptions over those of other media companies.

Now, importantly, the Comcast-NBCU deal limits began letting off a stink in Washington as the years went on. The terms were hard to enforce, and smaller programming competitors like Bloomberg complained that Comcast failed to honor them.

The Justice Department could view AT&T-Time Warner as a chance to correct those mistakes.

A caveat

The deepest impact of an AT&T buying Time Warner may surface in emerging entertainment formats.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson closed his remarks Monday about the deal by extolling opportunities in categories like virtual reality and self-driving cars. Imagine slipping into fully immersive episode of "Game of Thrones," delivered by an AT&T mobile connection to the autonomous vehicle handling your commute.

Technologies like VR and self-driving cars aren't assured mainstream success. But if they become a staple of your day-to-day life in five to 10 years, they have the potential to meaningfully change how and where you're entertained.

Regulators setting the terms of an AT&T deal in the present day have a tough time protecting competition in markets that don't exist yet.

But until we're living in a future like the Jetsons', at least AT&T merging with Time Warner won't throw us into a dystopia like "1984."