Olympics are over but geoblocking is here to stay

Sports rights carve-up means ‘not available in your location’ messages will persist

The Olympics is global, but the broadcast rights market is not. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

The Olympics is global, but the broadcast rights market is not. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

 

For a swift, sure method of sending me into a flight of rage, the words “this video/content is not available in your location” will do the trick every time.

What do you mean it’s not available in my location? It’s a small planet in the scheme of an infinite universe and the internet is supposed to be a seamless global machine. I demand to watch this BBC video of a spinning motorboat almost taking out half the male triathletes as they dive off the pier.

Geoblocking hurdles aren’t new but during international-by-definition events like the Olympics, they are prevalent enough to make social media users’ experience of trying to watch the action as farcical as a false start.

Rights owners are keen to uphold the value of their territorial carve-ups. Commercial rights bidders are eager to protect their sizeable investments. So some zealous-seeming takedowns of joyful content will occur to stop the whole business collapsing in on itself.

Elaine Thompson-Herah was blocked from Instagram after posting footage of her sprint victories. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP
Elaine Thompson-Herah. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Just ask Elaine Thompson-Herah, the Jamaican 100m and 200m champion who was temporarily (and mistakenly) suspended from Instagram after posting unofficial footage of her races. She could have shared content from a paid-up rights holder, but then at least some of her followers would have been geoblocked from seeing her cross the line.

Dara Ó Briain, meanwhile, tweeted on Sunday that his experience of following Team Ireland from the UK could be summed up “in a single image” of an @RTÉSport invitation to relive some of the standout moments of Tokyo 2020, only for the “not available in your location” message to appear in place of the link.

The annoyance is not confined to either online consumption or islands other than our own.

Earlier during the Games, various members of the Northern Ireland Assembly queued up to lambast RTÉ for what they branded the “entirely unacceptable” restricting of its Olympics television coverage in the North on Sky, Virgin Media and other pay-TV platforms – the offending line in this case being “this programme is not available”.

This elicited a terse statement from RTÉ that it had the rights to broadcast the Olympics in the Republic only. The International Olympics Committee (IOC), it pointed out, makes all decisions about how rights are allocated across different territories and it includes Northern Ireland as part of the UK broadcast territory. As such, the rights holders for the North were the BBC and Eurosport-owner Discovery Communications.

“RTÉ has no control over IOC decisions in this regard.”

Indeed, given RTÉ would dearly love to have control over IOC decisions, ranting in its direction was about as useful as a pentathlete weeping astride a recalcitrant horse.

Legitimate frustrations

Of course, the frustrations are legitimately felt. The complexities of how content rights are agreed and how television channels are received and retransmitted by pay-TV companies can result in an uneven treatment in which the North loses out.

Suggesting viewers try picking up unrestricted version of RTÉ2 through a Saorview DTT aerial, or advising Irish people based elsewhere that they can always give their personal details to a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent online geoblocking, may be of limited helpfulness.

Still, it is fair to say that recent IOC decisions wouldn’t augur well for the chances of either RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes or Minister for Media Catherine Martin were they to ever act on Sinn Féin sport spokeswoman Imelda Munster’s call for them to take steps to “prevent this ridiculous situation” in future.

For several decades, the IOC sold Olympic rights to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the alliance of public service broadcasters that includes RTÉ and counts the BBC as one of its “Big Five” funders. That partnership, which predated RTÉ’s television service, ended in 2008 when the IOC rejected the EBU umbrella bid for the 2014 and 2016 Games, saying it needed more money than public service broadcasters were willing and able to give.

Money talks, and even 13 years ago, European governments were not financing their State-owned broadcasters well enough to give them a shout with the cash-eyeing IOC.

Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 were sub-licensed to many of those same European broadcasters anyway from the successful bidder, rights agency SportFive. A noticeable shift in power didn’t properly take effect until Discovery entered the fray in a $1.3 billion deal in 2015 that gave it control of the rights in most of Europe from Pyeongchang 2018 to Paris 2024.

This was subject to national “major events” legislation and the IOC’s “cake-and-eat-it” condition that 200 hours of the summer Games be made available free-to-air.

There is more sport available to watch now than ever, but when the barriers go up, we can see them and know exactly what we are missing out on

The BBC, though it initially had the primary UK rights to the 2018 and 2020 Games, did a sort of swapsies with Discovery that saw it sacrifice its full on-demand rights to these two Games in exchange for guaranteed free-to-air coverage of 2022 and 2024. Its compromise, which confined it to only one linear channel and one on-demand option during Tokyo 2020, has been noisily regretted by viewers who enjoyed the full streaming menus it offered during 2012 and 2016.

Victim of success

Their disgruntlement was in turn amplified by the BBC-bashing press, turning it into a victim of its past on-demand success in a way that RTÉ was not.

For some viewers in the North, the BBC’s shrunken coverage could have fed into irritation this time around that the RTÉ option was blocked off. Others will have found it galling on principle that RTÉ’s Team Ireland focus was denied to them, regardless of what the BBC did or didn’t show.

Editorial slants matter. On the version of Eurosport accessible in Ireland, the tone was less jingoistic than that of the BBC, but its presentation was still vulnerable to the assumption that viewers were British.

This is a facet of ambitious streaming companies with “UK & Ireland” services shelling out for sports rights in both markets – the emphasis on-air will always be heavy on the “UK”.

The bigger picture, beyond the special case of the North, is that our expectations have changed. There is more sport available to watch now than ever, but when the barriers go up, we can see them and know exactly what we are missing out on. Tensions arise because the internet is global, but the content that populates it is not – not by default. If we want to keep the concept of national broadcasters alive, it can’t be.

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