Why is the BBC not showing as much of The Olympics this year?

The BBC has had to scale back what it can show on TV

The BBC's Olympic coverage
(Image credit: BBC)

Many British people have become used to the BBC having cutting edge coverage of The Olympics so there’s been some confusion this year about both the lack of additional sports on the red button and why this year’s games seem to have been scaled back so dramatically. 

If you want to watch The Olympics this year you can still do so on the BBC, but the red button coverage has gone and the corporation is now only able to show two sports at the same time. Enough to fill BBC 1 and 2, but not enough to allow viewers access to some of the more nice (and arguably more interesting) sports. 

Discovery has the rights to show The Olympics in full on its pay TV Eurosport channels which you can access on Sky and Virgin. You can also access on-demand streams via the Discovery+ app. You can currently get a 12 month subscription to Discovery+ for just £29.99, which might be a good option for anyone missing the full Olympic experience. 

So why did this happen? Well back in 2015 the International Olympic Committee decided to sell the rights as a package which covered the whole of Europe. Discovery Networks bid £920 million for these rights between 2018 and 2024, although the UK and France already had deals in place that covered the 2018 games

This deal has meant that the BBC can show a wide selection of sports, but only two at a time. That’s in stark contrast to London 2012 when the corporation offered HD streams over 24 live channels adding up to around 2,500 hours of programming. An absolutely mammoth operation and one that has clearly set British expectations very high for coverage of the games. 

In the UK we do have rules which govern rights, these protect the “Crown Jewels of Sport” and The Olympics calls into Catagory A, which mandates that they must be available on a UK free-to-air channel. In the case of The Olympics that usually means the BBC. A separate deal with the International Paralympic Committee allows Channel 4 to show sports until 2024. 

Ultimately, like most sports, it has become increasingly expensive to buy rights. Sports which were staples of the BBC for many years have been snapped up by other broadcasters, with Sky taking the lion’s share of the most popular events. With Discovery’s bid of neatly a billion quid, the BBC had absolutely no chance of securing the rights, its entire budget for BBC 1’s output is a little over £1 billion a year, so the maths don’t add up. 

So sadly, the days of watching some of the more obscure sports, live, and on the BBC for just the cost of your licence fee, have come to an end. The UK’s rules on sport do mean the Olympics will stick around for some time on free-to-air TV, but the days of 24 channels carrying everything from surfing to skateboarding are long gone. 

Ian has been involved in technology journalism since 2007, originally writing about AV hardware back when LCDs and plasma TVs were just gaining popularity. Nearly 15 years on, he remains as excited about how tech can make your life better.