BBC Olympics coverage misses events after loss of TV rights

The BBC has faced a series of complaints about the lack of live Tokyo Olympics coverage on its channels, after viewers failed to realise the International Olympic Committee has sold the majority of UK television rights to pay-TV company Discovery.

During the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics the BBC was able to offer dozens of free livestreams of different sports, revolutionising how British viewers watched the games and providing much-needed publicity to niche events that would not normally have enjoyed their moment in the public eye.

This is no longer possible, however, after Olympics organisers decided to sell the European television rights for the games to the US company Discovery in a £920m deal. Discovery has in turn put the vast majority of the coverage behind a paywall, accessible only through their Eurosport channels or on the new £6.99-a-month streaming service Discovery+.

Although the deal with the BBC was announced in 2016, this is the first summer Olympics where it has come into effect, meaning much of the British public was not aware of the changes until now.

Under the deal with the International Olympic Committee, Discovery is still required to make some of the coverage available on a free-to-air channel. Discovery decided to stick with the BBC for this element in the UK, in part to avoid a public relations disaster, allowing the national broadcaster to buy a limited amount of coverage.

As part of this sub-licensing arrangement the BBC can show a maximum of two live events at one time, through one television channel and a second feed provided through the red button service and online. Everything else requires viewers to switch to Eurosport or Discovery+, meaning many sports are simply not being covered live by the BBC.

The situation is a stark sign of the financial difficulties faced by the BBC, which has to combine the high expectations of the British public who want to watch free-to-air sport with the reality of a decade of government-imposed real-term funding cuts. At the same time, the rise of paid-for streaming services, which are increasingly bidding for the rights to show live sport, mean the BBC is increasingly unable to compete on budget when it comes to bidding for sporting events.

The attempt to provide a live mix of various sports through a single television channel – with some events on a time delay – can produce an unsatisfactory experience in a social media age. Viewers watching the taekwondo on BBC One on Sunday morning were disappointed to find the BBC Sport Twitter account announcing the winner when those watching the delayed coverage on television still had some time to go.

Discovery’s deal with the BBC will continue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and 2024 Olympics in Paris, after which point the BBC could face a competitive bid from other free-to-air channels such as ITV for the rights to show highlights of the events.

A BBC spokesperson said they would continue to bring “all the must-see moments” to the British public, while there will continue to be extensive coverage on the radio and BBC Sport website. But they confirmed that the era of widely accessible free coverage of all Olympic sports is over. “The BBC is no longer able to offer livestreams of every sport during the Olympics due to the terms of the licensing arrangements laid down by the rights holder, Discovery,” they said.

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