Owen Gibson interviews Peter Hutton, the head of Eurosport, whose Olympic-style ambitions are disrupting sports television
It’s a long way from Pennine Radio to Eurosport’s Paris HQ near the banks of the Seine.
When Peter Hutton began his career as a 16-year-old sports presenter in Bradford, the explosion in rights fees and multichannel revolution that transformed the sports media landscape was still to come.
Further off still were the shifting sands of today’s global sports broadcasting industry, where the swirl of new technology and changing viewing habits mingle with the still potent pull of live sport.
In his teenage years, Hutton could scarcely have imagined that he would oversee one of the most ambitious recent interventions in the European sports broadcasting landscape.
When the US broadcasting giant Discovery bought the well-regarded but sleepy pan-continental broadcaster Eurosport, in a €491m deal at the beginning of 2015, it was little remarked upon.
But five months later, when it signed a €1.3bn deal with the International Olympic Committee for exclusive pan-European rights to the Olympic Games between 2018 and 2024, the world took notice.
Since then, the rationale behind the complex deal has paid off. Despite uncertainty in the pay-TV and sports broadcasting markets, Eurosport has tied up a flurry of deals across the continent. Rights have been sub-licensed to other broadcasters.
Meanwhile, Eurosport has carved out other rights for itself and developed new cross-platform propositions ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics early next year.
Hutton says the Olympics deal was a transformative moment, both externally and internally: “It was the amazement that dawned on people when they realised we weren’t just buying a highlights deal but we were buying the Olympics for the whole of Europe.
“That took a while to sink in and was brilliant to see. People have seen a level of change that they didn’t believe was possible. The biggest value of the Olympics deal was the sense that everyone looked at it and realised we were a different company to the one they thought they knew.”
Another priority for Hutton and Eurosport has been to invest in local production and talent to give the channel more personality.
“Buying the Giro D’Italia exclusively for most of Europe was a great way to build on our cycling heritage. The same with Wimbledon. We were always known for a volume of tennis, but we now have Wimbledon in 36 markets, whereas we had none when Discovery took over,” he says.
In July, Eurosport announced that it had extended its deal for the Tour de France until 2023. In 38 markets it has exclusivity for the first time.
Eurosport is known for its Tour coverage but Hutton believes that there is an opportunity to improve it and keep pace with its rival ITV4.
“For the first time, we pushed the Tour organisers to televise every minute of the Tour. It used to be just the last three hours [of each day] but there is a demand for the whole day,” he says. “You look at the time people have spent with us on the Tour and it’s gone up dramatically,” he adds.
While the coverage of football, for example, has developed hugely over the past two decades, cycling coverage has, arguably, remained conservative.
“Cycling production is at quite a frustrating level,” he says. “You watch the sprint finishes, and you’re watching them head on. If you were a horse-racing viewer, you wouldn’t watch a race head on. It’s about putting a rail camera alongside and following them through – it would be much more dramatic.”
It’s a simple but compelling example of where he hopes investment in production and talent will shift perceptions of what Eurosport stands for.
A similar thought process has driven alliances with some of the most mercurial and talented athletes of each generation. Signing up Eric Cantona as a tongue-in-cheek commissioner of football during Euro 2016 was a particularly astute, if high-risk, move.
“It’s a learning experience,” says Hutton. “Talent is often a bit of a gamble. The association with McEnroe, Cantona, Lindsey Vonn and the local stars in each market has paid off in terms of changing the expectations of who we are.
“There’s a halo effect connected to being involved with the biggest sporting names, and that has helped change people’s perceptions. It takes time. The research is positive and moving in the right direction, but we’ve also got a long way to go.”
Hutton is right not to get carried away. The jury is still out on Discovery’s grand gamble. Eurosport’s strategy depends on a complex assemblage of moving cogs.
These parts include selling content to mobile networks to carving out free-to-air rights for Discovery’s other channels and establishing online subscription services. It remains to be seen if this is a smart response to a changing landscape or whether it creates issues of its own.
Meanwhile, the big bet on the Olympics comes at a time when many feel they are increasingly tarnished. Successive summer Games in Paris and Los Angeles – almost certain to be confirmed as the hosts for 2024 and 2028, respectively – will help reinvigorate the brand.
But there is a risk that those who once saw the Olympics as the ultimate in pure sporting achievement may be turned off by corruption, doping scandals and ennui.
Yet Hutton is optimistic, believing that the thrill of the sport will ultimately win out: “For me, as a teenage runner in Yorkshire, watching Seb Coe at the 1980 Moscow Olympics was an iconic moment.
"That wasn’t tarnished by the fact that lots of countries were not there. It was still my great Olympic moment. Yes, you get a lot of background noise around sporting events sometimes, but, when it comes to the moment, you immerse yourself in it.”
Hutton has seen the sports industry from all sides. His career has taken in stints at the BBC, the early days of the Sky Sports revolution, senior international roles at ESPN and Star Sports and a period on the rights side, at agency MP & Silva.
Unsurprisingly, he is convinced that sport will remain a key driver of TV audiences: “If you look at the stats across Europe, if you look at the top 100 shows of the year, sport takes up more and more of that space.
“As audiences for soap operas and daytime shows fragment, sport still brings people together in a way that very little else does.
“One of the great things about sport is that, the more you immerse yourself in it, the richer your experience is. So, Tour de France obsessives can go to the website, get the map, get the data and supplement what they’re seeing on broadcast.
“All those things feed into the idea that you can get much more out of the big events.”
Part of the trick, therefore, is to amplify that noise through digital channels and social media.
“It’s brilliant that our ratings have been consistently up – 14% up in the first six months of this year – and that has been driven by live events,” he argues. “Even though TV ratings might be down for a lot of channels, our big events are getting bigger and our audiences are getting bigger – not only on TV but [through] the different feeds you create around them and the social media you create around them.”
Eurosport remains in a “growth acquisition phase”, says Hutton. As is traditional for any sports broadcasting executive, he is coy when it comes to rights targets but doesn't rule out a tilt at the Premier League next time around.
Eurosport has invested in football elsewhere, including Germany and Norway, but Hutton, a lifelong Derby County fan, stresses that value must also be the watchword: “There are five territories in Europe where we’ve bought into the local league. You can’t ignore football if you want to be a big sporting competitor. When you see the right opportunity, it’s right to do it.”
Hutton gives the impression of a man thoroughly enjoying the challenge of transforming a respected but staid fixture of EPGs across Europe into a more thrusting, multi-platform beast.
“Living and working in Paris, and being part of what happens here, is a pretty interesting experience,” he says. “Sports deals come and go but changing an old brand, and seeing the evidence across Europe of that, it’s pretty special.”
Doing so against a backdrop of Brexit at home must be an odd experience, I suggest.
“We’re living proof of the strength of being part of that wider community and seeing that wider range of experiences,” Hutton responds. “We don’t see our future as being a pan-European, one-size-fits-all broadcaster, but we do benefit from taking content from multiple countries.”
His most pressing concern is the looming Winter Olympics in South Korea, the first big test of Eurosport’s IOC deal.
“I’m both excited and slightly nervous about PyeongChang,” he confesses. “People will rightly judge us on it. We need to move our production up a notch to deal with that expectation.
“It’s going to be challenging,” he laughs. “I’m looking forward to the holiday in March.”