In a bid to counteract the decimation of its sports coverage, the BBC has announced plans to produce and distribute an additional 1,000 hours a year of sports online. It has termed the move a reinvention of free-to-air sports broadcasting. In reality, though, it is a necessary reaction to the draining of top-tier sports from commercial and publicly funded channels.
In recent years the publicly funded Corporation has been forced to shed prestigious contracts for Formula 1, football, cricket, and golf mainly to competition from pay TV operators led by Sky and, lately, BT Sport.
While it still holds free to air rights to the Olympics in the UK until 2024, it will share coverage with subscribers to Eurosport.
Consequently, the BBC's increase in sports will see it concentrate on currently niche sports in the UK including wheelchair tennis, women's Super League soccer, and British Basketball League. These will be seen through the BBC Sport website and BBC iPlayer. The service will allow for personalisation though details on this have not been revealed. The iPlayer is already on its way to achieving more viewers, as 2016 was its best year to date with 243 million monthly requests on average.
In addition, more content from the BBC's remaining major sports rights will be streamed. These include Wimbledon, the FIFA World Cup until 2022, soccer's Euro 2020 and rugby union's Six Nations. Federations including The All England Lawn Tennis Club, the International Tennis Federation, British Swimming, and British Basketball back the plan to assist the BBC in move live production since they gain the oxygen of publicity to help grow their sports.
Key to the BBC's confidence in being able to stream this volume of content—to audiences that for some of the marquee contracts will run into the millions—is the IP contribution and distribution infrastructure as well as the front-end iPlayer it has been building since London 2012. The Corporation's new £120m regional headquarters in Cardiff, Wales will be its first to be outfitted entirely with IP infrastructure. Due to open in late 2019, the buliding is part of a strategy to shift transport of all signals to IP. The aim is to make cost savings and pave the way for future digital innovation.
Partnered with telco BT, the BBC has already laid an IP network linking all 21 UK broadcasting centres and local radio stations, as well as connecting to its main overseas bureaus and partners for playout of the BBC's TV channels.
The network will carry all video, audio, and data traffic, as well as fixed-line telephony, ISDN and broadband services. IP contribution links have already been introduced at major BBC ingest points in London and Salford, home of BBC Sport. The majority of news and sports production are already using IP contribution.
The IP network will also make it easier for the BBC to work with, and explore, emerging, data-hungry formats like UHD, 360° content and object-based broadcasting.
BBC national and regional facilities will run uncompressed video, but a number of other internet streaming platforms are under consideration. "There is a growing interest among the production community in approaches for very low-cost, low-effort production with which to engage social platforms," according to BBC head of product, systems, and services Tim Sargeant.
Although there isn't a huge difference between the cost of like-for-like SDI and IP equipment, the BBC expects the flexibility offered by IP solutions will mean that savings will be made over time."We are seeing a simultaneous shift towards service models with cost savings associated with that," said Sargeant.
The BBC is also likely to employ remote production of sports to reduce costs. An example is the control over IP of one or two cameras at a venue from a centralised location.
BBC Director General Tony Hall admitted the BBC has been forced to evolve as a result of the budget for live sport being slashed. "As we have shown time and time again, we will not stand still…not if we want to meet the changing demands of sports fans, not if we want to remain relevant in the media's most competitive marketplace.
"While we're privileged to be funded by the licence fee, it's no secret we don't have the same deep pockets as those we must now compete against but we have unique qualities that are essential for those sports who want to ensure their events are available to – and able to inspire – the widest possible audience."
Hall had earlier warned of the threat to British broadcasting from Netflix and other online streamers. He said their rise would ultimately lead to an annual fall in the amount spent by British broadcasters to around £500 million ($653 million) a year over the next ten years.
In January Hall outlined a strategy to "totally reinvent the iPlayer by 2020 to increase its reach and become a "must-visit destination.”