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Ticketmaster / Live Nation merger: Reports flip-flop on whether DOJ will approve the deal

By Alfred Branch Jr.

Despite extensive criticism of the deal, including scathing indictments by consumer protection groups and promoters and venue operators, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) was reportedly on the brink of approving the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger, but by this afternoon, the prospects grew decidedly more murky.

Early today, January 6, TheDeal.com reported that unnamed sources were saying that the merger would be approved because DOJ lawyers were "unenthused" by the prospect of opposing it in court. The DOJ doesn't exactly approve or deny a merger, it decides whether to sue to block it, let it go through with no changes, or suggest concessions for the companies to undertake to avoid litigation.

In this case, Live Nation was reportedly being told to sell its year-old ticketing operation to satisfy DOJ's antitrust concerns, a likely buyer of which would be cable television giant Comcast, which owns New Era Tickets and Comcast Spectacor.

By the afternoon, numerous media outlets, including Reuters, contradicted TheDeal.com's report, stressing that not only was the deal's approval not imminent, DOJ lawyers were supposedly preparing the case against it and have been for months.

"The reports that the merger will be approved, like the premature reports of Mark Twain's death, are inaccurate and flawed, and are clearly timed to impact the shareholder vote on Friday," David Balto, former Federal Trade Commission policy director and counsel to the consumer protection groups that oppose the deal, said in a statement. The groups launched an anti-merger Web site, TicketDisaster.org, where they're soliciting public opposition to the deal. Ticketmaster Entertainment has scheduled its shareholder vote on the deal for January 8.

"Ticketmaster may wish that the competitive problems from this merger can be solved through a piecemeal divestiture, but they are wrong," Balto added. "It is not unusual for merging firms to try to rescue a stranded deal with some type of last-minute remedy, but history has shown that consumers are better off when the antitrust cops reject those desperate pleas and protect the interests of a fair and competitive market."

Shares of both Ticketmaster and Live Nation stock, which trade under the symbols TKTM and LYV, respectively, gained as word of the possible DOJ decision spread through the financial markets.

Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, which spearheaded TicketDisaster.org with the National Association of Ticket Brokers, said in a statement Ticketmaster's "just trust us" approach is wearing thin with consumers who have felt gouged by the company's service fees.

"Thousands of consumers, fifty Members of Congress, and a broad and growing coalition of public interest groups and live event industry representatives oppose this merger as an attempt by one behemoth to snap up its only significant rival in the ticketing market and extend its market power into every level of the live event industry. DOJ should block this merger outright, and we have every hope that they will do so."

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