Discovery, the US pay-TV channel that bought up the European TV rights to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, said the deal has driven a record number of people to sign up to its subscription service and helped boost quarterly revenues by 21% to more than $3bn (£2.2bn).
The company’s Olympic deal is controversial in the UK, where it severely restricts the amount of coverage that can be shown on the BBC compared with previous games.
The Discovery chief executive, David Zaslav, described the deal as “a success”, saying it was supporting “healthy viewing and subscriptions across both our linear and streaming platforms, and underscores the importance of our commitment and investment in marquee IP [intellectual property].”
More than 275 million viewers across Europe had watched the Games so far, the network said. About 100m of those viewers tuned in via Eurosport or its streaming service discovery+. The remaining 175 million viewers were recorded by Discovery’s “sublicence agreements with partner free-to-air broadcasters around Europe” such as the BBC in the UK, Italy’s state broadcaster RAI, or Ireland’s RTÉ.
In total, Discovery said viewing figures were 10% higher than those reached during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. The company, , which owns the European pay-TV channel Eurosport, bought the exclusive broadcast rights to the 2018-2024 Olympics across 50 countries throughout Europe in 2014 for €1.3bn (£1.1bn). It did not release viewing comparisons for the 2016 Rio Summer Games, which fell outside this deal.
The US company sold on the rights to some live coverage to the BBC in the UK, and other national broadcasters across Europe. However, the deal means far less sports and live coverage is available on BBC TV channels and the iPlayer than during previous Olympics, which has led to a flood of complaints.
The BBC can only broadcast a maximum of two live Olympic events at a time. During previous Games, in London 2012 and Rio 2016, it was able to air numerous simultaneous events.
Julian Knight, the chairman of the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, has described the arrangement as “a very poor deal for both licence-fee payers and viewers”.
Announcing its quarterly earnings on Tuesday, Discovery said the Olympic coverage deal had helped it attract a record number of new subscribers to take its total global subscription base to 17m. It also said that international advertising sales rose 88% during the quarter.
Two former BBC chairmen have called on the government to investigate changing broadcast rules so that viewers can watch more of the Olympic Games for free. Lord Grade and Sir Michael Lyons told the Daily Mail that the lack of comprehensive coverage of Tokyo 2020 has been “disappointing” and asked politicians to consider broadening the rules on sporting events that must be shown on free-to-air TV.
Grade, who chaired the BBC between 2004 and 2006, said: “I think that parliament needs to look at this and find some way, not of interfering in the market, but making sure that there is fuller coverage on free-to-air. It’s a huge disappointment to people not to be able to have the usual fuller BBC coverage. The Olympic Games belong to everyone really.”
Lyons, who was the chairman between 2007 and 2011, said that “listed events” rules should be broadened to ensure free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC can show all Olympics events.
Jean-Briac Perrette, the president and chief executive of Discovery International, said: “The Olympic Games is the biggest global event that goes far beyond sports and traditional sports audiences. When we look back at the first week, it is clear the Olympics has brought new and different audiences to our platforms in impressive numbers.
“The Tokyo Games are seeing digital numbers never seen before, and we are thrilled that so many fans across Europe are watching the Games on discovery+ and Eurosport Player.”
The BBC announced on Tuesday that 32.8 million people had tuned in to watch the action on BBC TV. It has recorded a further 69m online viewing requests on the iPlayer, BBC sport website and app. The BBC is showing more than 500 hours of live TV coverage.