The long-awaited new Olympic TV rights deals means more of the same for viewers in the UK and Ireland, but with a subtle difference in ownership.
Summer 2021. After a delay of one year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games finally got underway. It wasn’t long before viewers started to realise something wasn’t quite right.
Fans of sports normally only given an airing once every four years frantically searched through the BBC Olympics coverage. Viewers complained of coverage jumping in and out of different events instead of offering unbroken coverage from start to finish.
You didn’t like it? Well that’s how both the BBC and RTÉ will continue to cover both the summer and winter Olympics for the next decade following the announcement of a new rights deal.
The deal encompasses at least 200 hours of coverage of the summer games and 100 hours for the winter Olympics for the next decade.
Last time around, Discovery shocked broadcasters across Europe by swooping on the broadcast rights. In one move, public service broadcasters lost one of their cherished sporting assets.
Knowing full well that broadcasting laws throughout Europe require some free-to-air coverage, Discovery proceeded to strike sub-licensing deals with broadcasters. They knew some public broadcasters were desperate to keep coverage. They also knew that they might be able to extract more than just money from broadcasters.
The IOC/Discovery deal secured the European rights to Olympic coverage from 2018 to 2024 inclusive. But in the UK, the BBC had already beaten Discovery to securing coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics and 2020 Summer Olympics. The corporation took the opportunity to secure the rights just before the 2012 London Olympics and before severe cost-cutting took its toll.
The BBC, facing a loss of coverage beyond 2020, struck a sub-licensing deal with Discovery – with extras thrown in. In return for access to cover 2022 and 2024 Olympic games, Discovery wanted full UK access to the 2018 and 2020 games.
The BBC would still be the main rightsholder, but would only be allowed to cover the events on one network channel, plus one online or red button stream. The same terms would apply in 2022 and 2024, except that the BBC would be the one sublicensing rights.
In 2018, not many noticed the change in coverage for the Winter Olympics. But by the time 2021 came around, viewers used to the BBC going all out with extra red button and online streams were shocked by the reduction in coverage.
For the next broadcast rights round, public broadcasters across Europe knew they needed to negotiate together as one. Enter the EBU.
But with most public broadcasters suffering from stretched budgets, there was no way that the EBU could do it on its own – the sports market had moved on from the 1990s when this was more typical. Like it or not, they would need to partner with Discovery – now part of Warner Bros Discovery.
The move would at least secure a basic level of free-to-air coverage required by legislation. WBD wouldn’t need to then go into protracted negotiations with individual broadcasters – after all, they almost failed to reach a deal with Germany’s ARD and ZDF for the 2018 Winter games.
And with public broadcasters already surrendering sports rights to Discovery in return for Olympic coverage, there wasn’t much more to negotiate with in a further sub-licensing round.
So from the 2026 Winter Olympics onwards, the official rights holders are WBD and EBU, with the EBU and its members, including the BBC and RTÉ, the junior party to this arrangement. The BBC, for example, has confirmed the deal means its coverage will stay at current levels.
The IOC hasn’t disclosed how much this deal is worth, and indeed how much the EBU has paid on behalf of public broadcasters across Europe.
But looking specifically at the summer games, with the 2028 and 2032 games taking place in distant timezones (Los Angeles and Brisbane), most of the big events look set to take place during the night (Los Angeles) or the morning (Brisbane). As a result, the impact on European broadcasters might not be that great.
But before then, the last of the current Olympic games under the WBD sub-licensing arrangement: Paris 2024. With all the big events taking place during prime viewing hours, this will be the moment the restricted coverage will be most keenly felt. It’s also the main opportunity WBD has to really push the enhanced live coverage it will have.
The good news for Sky viewers is that Discovery+ is now offered for free in both the UK and Ireland, meaning subscribers no longer have to pay extra to watch WBD’s full Olympic coverage.
Whether other pay TV platforms follow remain to be seen. The move ends the odd situation where Sky viewers had to pay extra to stream Discovery’s programmes, but could watch the same programmes at no extra cost on its linear pay channels within Sky’s TV package.
As for the Olympics, much as the coverage changes were disliked by viewers, there’s no going back now.
PICTURED: Olympics/BBC Sport/RTÉ Sport logos. COPYRIGHT: International Olympic Committee/BBC/RTÉ.