Heat is on as Discovery goes for Olympic streaming gold

Pandemic-struck Tokyo 2020 has shown up size of broadcaster's Games gamble

Gold is not the only medal that matters, either in the Olympic Games or in the streaming wars, where any podium finish should prove a shiny, lucrative result.

Six years on from its Olympic rights splurge, US television giant Discovery Communications – the primary Tokyo 2020 rights holder across much of Europe – is still only warming up for its outright assault on the streaming market.

This is a race where Netflix, Disney Plus and Prime Video (tied up with Amazon's giant ecommerce project) seem like untouchable frontrunners. But there could yet be many winners claiming subscription revenue triumph and treating themselves to a victory lap – just as long as they don't bust their financial guts in the effort.

Discovery entered the competition in 2015 when it took full control of also-ran sports channel Eurosport and then shelled out $1.3 billion for the rights to broadcast the summer and winter Olympics across most European countries from 2018 to 2024, and for 2022 and 2024 in the UK and France.

Eurosport has now duly prepped its mixed-reality “Cube”, a London-based studio that merges the real with the virtual, making it seem like its remotely filmed interviewees are in the same room as the presenters asking the questions. It looks cool and also happens to be pandemic-friendly.

That selected Tokyo 2020 coverage will still be on RTÉ, meaning most viewers won't be aware of Discovery's expensive intervention, springs in part from a legislative requirement on the company to make at least a portion of the television rights free-to-air. This is thanks to the presence of the summer Olympics on the Government's "major events" list.

As other EU countries have similar lists, Discovery spent the years following its rights snatch negotiating a string of sub-licensing deals in a bid to comply with the regulations and bring in some useful revenue while still retaining the ability to market itself as “home of the Olympics”.

RTÉ soon agreed a deal without sweating too heavily about it in public, but the process was bumpier in Germany, where the German version of Eurosport is free-to-air anyway. Two rounds of talks were needed with public service broadcasters ARD and ZDF, who baulked at the initial price, and at one point opted to let the Olympics go rather than pay too much.

The BBC, however, actually gave Discovery some of its previously won rights to 2018 and 2020 – including the right to show all sports on-demand – in exchange for face-saving free-to-air rights to 2022 and 2024.

Niche interests

As much as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) likes to play up the image of the Games as one cohesive extravaganza, with all events unified by the same idealistic "spirit", for many viewers the Olympics are merely an eclectic collection of niche sports, some of them very niche indeed.

For Discovery, chasing both ad revenues and new sign-ups to the Discovery Plus app (€59.99 a year, discounted to €29.99 for pre-August sign-ups), the market is on the margins. Want to watch the gymnastics or the tennis but the linear channels are all showing swimming and rowing? The full menu of on-demand options is Discovery’s to sell.

Included with the app – a successor to the discontinued Eurosport Player – is a bundle of other content owned by the factual television giant, such as “the best of Gold Rush, 90 Day Fiancé and Ghost Adventures”.

If memory serves, Discovery is also big into sharks and trucks, so if sharks, trucks, ghosts and seeing every minute of the modern pentathlon are your bag, this could be the app for you.

But in less-entertaining developments, a stadium-sized shadow has darkened over Discovery’s big Olympics-fuelled push. The company’s first response to the postponement of the Games in March 2020 was to retract its full-year financial guidance and draw down $500 million from a revolving credit facility to shore up its balance sheet.

It then went on a more upbeat phase, with chief executive David Zaslav suggesting 2021 could prove a "little better" because the proximity in time of Tokyo to the Beijing 2022 winter Olympics would allow it to market both Games together.

The virus has not co-operated with this optimism. Yes, Tokyo 2020 is going ahead from this Friday, but it will do so amid a hostility that makes the fierce local opposition to previous Games seem like mild grumbles in retrospect. Japan is not celebrating the Olympics, it is suffering them.

Even in the history of the Games failing to live up to the doves-accessorised "Olympism" perpetuated by the IOC, there has never been anything quite like the sight of top sponsor Toyota pulling all Olympic-themed ads on Japanese television for fear of being associated with the hated event.

From the dismal sight of empty venues to the chaos of athletes testing Covid-positive, the circumstances do not exactly help broadcasters trying to bask in the reflected glory of sporting achievement.

Teaming up

Discovery can perhaps take some comfort in not being the only traditional television broadcaster vying to use the Olympics to turbo-charge its streaming efforts and compete with Disney and Big Tech. In the US, NBC – owned by Sky’s parent company Comcast – is hopeful that the Games will boost interest in its nascent streamer Peacock.

But it is a testament to the high-risk scale of investment demanded by the global streaming business that Discovery no longer intends to compete alone in it. In May, it announced it planned to merge with AT&T's WarnerMedia – of HBO Max and Warner Bros fame – and form a new company that will be 29 per cent owned by Discovery shareholders and 71 per cent owned by AT&T shareholders, with Zaslav as CEO.

Now John Malone, the Irish-American billionaire who controls cable giant Liberty Global (owner of Virgin Media Ireland) and has a voting stake of more than 25 per cent in Discovery, predicts Warner Bros Discovery can challenge for the streaming medal positions.

“I think we are not only going to be the third such platform, but I think we’ll be very competitive with the other two,” he told CNBC.

It’s good to have ambitions. In the meantime, media industry consolidation could become an Olympic event again, if only to prevent solo runners from over-extending themselves and collapsing on the track.

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