The BBC has suffered a huge blow to its sports programming output as it lost control of the rights to air the Olympic Games from 2022 onwards.
American broadcaster Discovery, who own Eurosport, signed a £920 million exclusive contract with The Olympics in a pan-European deal – and will become the main broadcaster of the games in 2022.
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The Discovery chief executive, David Zaslav, told the Guardian that it would negotiate with the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK, France and Germany over potentially sub-licensing some of the rights.
“Part of our approach will be to strive to work with some of the best Olympic broadcast players. The BBC will have the chance to sub-licence some of the rights. We’ll open up those discussions in every market,” he said.
“We want to give them the opportunity to sub-licence. In some markets we will run free to air, pay TV and all devices and in others we’ll partner with others.”
But even if the BBC is ultimately able to sub-licence some of the rights, it will no longer be able to market itself as the home of the Olympics across all platforms.
The BBC’s sports portfolio has come under unprecedented pressure in recent years as pay TV broadcasters have tussled over rights. The Open golf was the latest event to move to Sky and it is also expected to face a fight to hang on to the rights to rugby’s Six Nations.
Under the complex deal Discovery, which owns Eurosport, has dramatically seized the rights to both the summer and winter Olympics across Europe, excluding Russia, from 2018 onwards.
But in the UK and France deals had already been signed for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and the 2020 summer Games in Tokyo, with the BBC retaining the rights to those two Games following its triumphant coverage of London 2012.
Unless existing legislation changes, Discovery will still have to broadcast the entire winter and summer Games free to air. Zaslav said it would come to different arrangements in different markets across the European territories covered by the deal.
“We understand the great legacy of Olympic programming across Europe and we have great respect for the quality of content produced by the BBC, by French TV and German TV,” he said. “Now we have the exclusive rights to the Olympics on every platform, we’ll begin discussions with all the different players in every market.”
For many years, the IOC has signed deals with a consortium of public broadcasters throughout Europe but more recently has started to examine the possibility of working with pay TV groups, as long as they guaranteed to show at least 200 hours of the summer Olympics and 100 hours of the winter Games free to air.
In 2012, the Guardian revealed that the then IOC president Jacques Rogge was considering just such a deal in the UK but the BBC managed to retain the rights to the 2018 and 2020 Games.
Last year, the IOC signed a $7.5bn broadcasting deal in the US with NBC that runs until 2032. The deal, signed by the IOC president, Thomas Bach, without a bidding process, will help underwrite his ambitious plans for an IOC television channel between Games.
“This agreement ensures comprehensive coverage of the Olympic Games across Europe, including the guarantee to provide extensive free-to-air television coverage in all territories,” said Bach, who took over from Rogge in 2013.
“Discovery and Eurosport have demonstrated a major commitment to the Olympic Games, to Olympic sports and to the future of the Olympic Movement.”
As part of the deal, Discovery will help develop the new Olympic channel. Zaslav said it was a “historic day”.
“With Eurosport’s proud and long-standing tradition of broadcasting many winter and summer sports showcased during the Olympics, adding the Olympic Games, the greatest live event in the world, is a perfect editorial and strategic fit,” he said.
“But most of all, this new partnership is an exciting win for European sports fans as we will deliver record amounts of content across platforms to ensure the Olympic flame burns bright all year long.”
The Olympics currently remains on the government’s list of events protected for free-to-air television. The list was last officially reviewed in 2009 but no changes were eventually made after the coalition government came to power in 2010.
The then sports minister Hugh Robertson said the list would be reviewed again when the digital switchover was complete but there is little mood at present to revisit the issue.
Discovery bought Eurosport last year and has ambitious plans for the pan-European broadcaster. It seriously considered bidding for the live UK Premier League rights that ended up costing Sky and BT Sport £5.1bn between them and has been linked with several other major sports rights.
Zaslav said it would work with the IOC to promote Olympic sports between Games, both on Eurosport and the mooted new Olympic television channel.
“There is no more unique property anywhere on the globe. It’s live, it’s must have, it has universal appeal from male to female,” said Zaslav.
“With the change with the way content is being consumed, live programming where people can come together and watch – this is a two-and-a-half week Superbowl across Europe. It’s very unique and a great opportunity to get the most compelling programming to our viewers.”
Timo Lumme, the managing director of the IOC’s television and marketing services, said the deal with Discovery gave it a “partnership made in heaven” as it developed plans for a new channel that would promote Olympic sport between Games. “We would hope the outcome will be some sort of Olympic channel contract where people can connect 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” he said.
The BBC’s director of sport, Barbara Slater, recently warned that cutting the licence fee could lead to the BBC no longer being able to compete for major sporting events.
“Having had for a number of years now [the same] flat licence fee, which has resulted in smaller budget for individual divisions such as sport, there is going to come a tipping point at which the BBC does need investment if it is going to continue to compete for, I think, events that people really treasure on the BBC, like the Olympics and some of the major championships,” she said.
“And, of course, we’re exploring a multitude of different solutions to that, including sharing with other broadcasters etc. And there is still a very, very significant investment that we’re currently making.
“But to see that on a significantly downward trajectory, I think, would be enormously damaging to the ecology of sports broadcasting.”
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