NBCSN, the home of the Premier League in the United States, could be completely gone within the next 12 months, according to a prediction by a top media journalist.
Fans of the Premier League in the United States have for the last several years been accustomed to a default linear TV channel to watch the league. NBCSN has been the home of most Premier League linear telecasts in the U.S. since August 2013. However, last week, highly-respected writer John Ourand of Sports Business Journal echoed much of the chatter in the media industry making the prediction for 2021 that NBCSN will be gone by year’s end.
Late in the year — think November or December — NBC will shut down its sports channel and move NHL and EPL programming to USA Network and Peacock. The move is part of a strategy to grow NBC’s streaming service, while keeping its big entertainment channel relevant in a cord-cutting world. The move creates a glut of smaller programming — like car shows and dog shows — in the media marketplace.
Broadcast television has changed remarkably since Comcast completed its buyout of NBCUniversal in early 2013. Later that year, the Premier League debuted on NBCSN, a channel which was previously owned by Comcast prior to the merger with NBCUniversal and called Versus.
It is logical that NBCUniversal would look to consolidate content and close down NBCSN. For starters, the channel as a stand-alone property doesn’t bring either the viewership numbers nor the carriage fees that Disney’s ESPN sports channels do. Secondly, NBCSN content can be spread easily to Peacock to give NBC a competitive boost in its battle against Disney and Viacom-owned streaming competitors that mix sports, entertainment and news.
Streaming content, which was a supplementary add-on for most cable viewers in 2013, has as 2021 approaches become for many consumers an outright substitute for cable. For many Premier League viewers in the U.S., it might be easier to have access to all league content via Peacock, NBC’s over-the-air channel and USA Network, which is on basic cable in most places, than to have to keep a premium cable tier/sports pack to receive NBCSN. In a world of cord-cutting, while a shutdown of NBCSN would inconvenience some Premier League fans, for many it might provide an opportunity to consolidate viewing platforms and reduce costs.
Ourand made another NBC-related Premier League prediction which has far greater long-term implications for the league’s viewership in the U.S. than the potential shutdown of NBCSN. He predicted:
NBC will start negotiating a new EPL deal early in the summer. Even though other media companies will try to grab those rights, NBC will lock them up for another six-year term. NBC will create more windows on its broadcast channel, plus run games on USA Network and Peacock, while keeping the most matches behind a paywall on Peacock.
For the record, this prediction, unlike the one about NBCSN shutting down, surprised me. I have been operating for the last 12-18 months under the assumption that the flatlining of Premier League ratings on both NBC and NBCSN, the likely shutdown of NBCSN, as well as the gravitating of content to behind a paywall was a sign NBC was trying to recoup losses incurred on the current 6-year rights deal the broadcaster made with the league in 2015. As a result of these factors, I felt that in all likelihood, the Premier League would begin life with another U.S. media partner at the end of this rights cycle, in August 2022.
My assumption was that a purely streaming platform such as Amazon Prime, DAZN or Disney’s streaming services would have the resources and the bandwidth to pry the league away from NBC, who arguably overpaid in 2015 for the rights from 2016 to 2022. However, this makes sense from both NBC and the Premier League’s perspective.
How does this potentially create an advantage for the Premier League?
It puts the Premier League on distribution networks not solely dedicated to sports. It may surprise some fans, but being on a platform that features drama series, movies and news gives an additional ramp for non-sports driven people to explore soccer.
With Disney’s recent investor day announcement that they will build ESPN+ content (including several of the Premier League rival competitions) into the Hulu platform, the Premier League will benefit from being on a platform, Peacock, which it shares with popular entertainment and news programming.
In addition, Peacock provides the Premier League with U.S. access to its in-house TV channel. Having Premier League TV on throughout the day in the U.S. is an important step for providing shoulder and ancillary programming for the league’s fans in this country.
Sticking with NBC would also give the league a leg up on competitors, as it would increase broadcasts on linear TV, which is an option no competitor can offer the league. Additionally, placing select matches on USA Network is an upgrade over matches that currently are on NBCSN or CNBC, in terms of general viewership. However, it might make each match more difficult to find, as a programming guide will be needed to know where each match is broadcast.
How this advantages NBC
Assuming NBCSN is shut down, keeping the Premier League gives even more incentive to push sign-ups for Peacock. As noted above, many fans of the league in the U.S. would potentially benefit from having most of the matches consolidated in one streaming platform, rather than the current almost equal split between streaming and linear TV.
Since Comcast purchased BSkyB in the U.K., we have seen greater synergies in NBC and Sky Sports Premier League coverage. If NBC can reach another long-term deal with the Premier League, those synergies can be further exploited. This not only helps cut production costs but can help along with Peacock’s streaming of Premier League TV to bring U.S. and U.K. coverage of the league in sync.
Time will tell if Ourand’s predictions come to pass, but one thing is for sure – in a media landscape changing rapidly due to streaming and COVID-19, Comcast will continue to tweak its operation to position its NBC properties in the best competitive situation possible.
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