US media giant eyes UK market after fast-tracking its acquisition of a controlling stake in pan-European broadcaster
Discovery Communications, the new majority shareholder in Eurosport, is considering using its deep pockets to take on BSkyB and BT in the next multibillion-pound war for Premier League TV rights.
The owner of the Discovery factual channel, which has a market capitalisation of $28bn (£19bn), is eying up the UK sports rights market after a deal last week to fast-track its acquisition of a controlling stake in Eurosport.
Bidding for the next three-year Premier League TV rights deal is expected to start later this year, and the Discovery Communications chief executive, David Zaslav, told the Guardian that his company is considering a bid.
"We will look opportunistically at everything, strong sports rights can be very compelling and 'must have' content for viewers and advertisers," he said, adding that the UK is Discovery's biggest market outside the US. "Eurosport is very strong in the UK and we'll will look at all rights in the UK and Europe and make a strategic decision."
In June 2012 BT made a surprise entry into Premier League TV rights, winning a significant number of top-flight games that had been the preserve of BSkyB, in a battle that netted the league a record £3bn.
On Wednesday Discovery increased its stake in Eurosport from 20% to 51%, almost a year ahead of plan. Best known for Shark Week and other factual programming such as Deadliest Catch, Man Vs Wild and Sons of Guns, Discovery is now seeking to move into TV sport by expanding the pan-European broadcaster's clout in the 54 countries it operates.
French broadcaster TF1 is the other shareholder in Eurosport, which launched in 1989 but has not been a major player in the UK market. It is best known in the UK for its Tour de France and tennis coverage. Eurosport's website is operated as a co-branded partnership with Yahoo.
"The more we saw it the more we loved it," said Zaslav. "One of the reasons we wanted to move earlier [than planned] is the opportunity to move quickly and build Eurosport in terms of brand and sports rights in its markets."
Discovery Communications, a global business which also owns channels including TLC, Animal Planet and the Oprah Winfrey Network, has the muscle, and desire, for further international growth. Up to now it has specialised in factual channels and programming.
International markets accounts for about 40% of the $600m in profits the company made in the three months to the end of September, a healthy 20% year-on-year increase.
"Eurosport has sports rights all over the world, we have a unique platform and a great opportunity to build on that with sports rights," said Zaslav, who has been aggressively pushing expansion outside the US since joining in 2007. "But we will be selective. We will look at opportunities to take bigger swings in certain markets."
While pay-TV accounts for 90% of Discovery's business it does have a free-to-air presence in the UK and most notably in Italy and Germany, with channels such as Quest and DMAX.
While Zaslav did not rule out taking a look at Richard Desmond's Channel 5, which with six UK terrestrial channels provides the potential to restructure into a mix of free and pay-TV service, he said that the UK business had a "strong growth trajectory without acquisition".
"We don't talk about specific transactions but we will always look opportunistically," he said. "The question is the same, does it make sense strategically. We have a good growth trajectory."
Discovery has taken an interest in buying UK assets in the past, albeit in the pay-TV and production company sectors, but will nevertheless receive a detailed information memorandum on the Channel 5 sale from Desmond's bank Barclays in the coming weeks.
The company showed interest in buying Virgin Media TV, home to channels such as Living TV, which was bought by BSkyB.
Discovery also pursued UKTV, which runs channels including Dave and Gold, with US rival Scripps eventually snapping up the stake held by Virgin Media in the pay-TV business half owned by BBC Worldwide.
While Discovery has not made a major acquisition in the UK, aside from a relatively small investment to takeover Betty, the independent producer that makes shows including The Undateables, Zaslav is not afraid to make big bets when the opportunity presents itself.
In December 2012 Discovery acquired Nordic broadcasting business SBS in a $1.7bn deal, the largest in the company's almost 30-year history.
"Over the last three years Discovery has grown 20% in Europe per year, against a relatively flat economy, and will continue to grow in double digits," he said. "We see western Europe as an emerging market for us."
Discovery was recently linked with a potential takeover of rival Scripps, owner of 50% of UKTV as well as the Food Network and HGTV, but the talks reportedly did not get past the exploratory stage before being abandoned.
John Malone, the chairman of Virgin Media's parent company Liberty Global, is one of the largest shareholders in Discovery Communications. Malone, chief executive of Discovery from 2005 until 2008 when the company was taken public in the US, holds a stake which gives him almost 30% of the voting power. He is a director and member of the executive committee of Discovery.
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