Come July, billions will tune in to watch the Olympics – such is the power of the Games that even people who do not routinely follow sports will take an interest, if only out of pride for the nation or to watch records tumble.
For most Bulgarians that do follow sports, the choice of where to watch the London Olympics will be a simple one: Eurosport, the pan-European sports network that has been a staple of basic cable packages for more than a decade and has had a Bulgarian-language version for most of that time. (For expats, it is a trickier proposition, and the chances of getting British Eurosport depend solely on the whims of their local cable providers).
But for many a casual watcher of sports, the more likely option is public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT), if only because of its wider reach and focus on competitions featuring Bulgarian athletes, these being the ones that the wide majority of the audience will be most interested in.
The avid sports fans will list a slew of reasons why their casual brethren should tune in to Eurosport anyway – wider coverage on a 24-hour network dedicated exclusively to sports (and with Eurosport2, double the amount of sport) and superior commentary.
BNT holds the rights for the London Games, but it is far from certain that it will do so in two years' time, when the Russian city of Sochi will host the Winter Olympics, or in 2016, when the Summer Games will head to Rio de Janeiro.
The public broadcaster is yet to sign a contract for the rights to the next two Olympics, and one report in Bulgarian media claimed that BNT was unlikely to get the easy pass that it is accustomed to.
Website dnevnik.bg said on January 23 that TV+ channel, carried mainly by satellite service Bulsatcom, was poised to sign a contract to broadcast the Games in Sochi and Rio within days. Quoting unnamed sources familiar with the situation, dnevnik.bg said that TV+, which bought the broadcasting rights to the Formula One races for this season, had agreed most of the details and could sign a contract within days.
Contacted for comment by BNT, Sportfive International vice president for media rights Sergio Lopez said that there was no deal in place yet and declined to comment on the report until a contract is signed. He said that the company had signed confidentiality agreements with all bidders and was prepared to sue any of the participants in the tender if they breached the agreements by commenting publicly on the issue.
In 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the broadcast rights for Europe across all platforms to the 2014 and 2016 Games to Sportfive, one of the largest sports marketing agencies in Europe. The IOC excluded the largest European markets from its agreement with Sportfive – Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Turkey being the countries where the IOC chose to negotiate individual deals with local broadcasters. The value of the Sportfive contract was not made public, but media reports put it at about $250 million.
The deal was a result of IOC's decision to cut ties with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which unites Europe's public broadcasters. EBU members, BNT among them, have been broadcasting Olympics for more than 50 years, but the IOC decided that it could get higher revenues by opening up to other broadcasters in the large markets and selling the rights to small ones in bulk to Sportfive.
Should BNT lose the rights, it would be another blow to the public broadcaster, who lost the Euro 2008 football tournament broadcasting rights to cable company Diema Vision, owned by Nordic group MTG, much to the delight of football supporters tired of BNT's lacklustre sports commentary (the public broadcaster later secured the rights to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012).
As an event of "heightened public interest", the Olympics have to be broadcast by free-of-charge terrestrial channels that reach at least 85 per cent of Bulgaria's population, according to a Council on Electronic Media regulation. An exception can be made if terrestrial broadcasters decline to or are financially unable to do so.