After four years of exclusive international broadcast and merchandising rights of the annual Eco-Challenge event (a multi-sport endurance race), the Discovery Channel is out of the running.
Eco-Challenge founder Mark Burnett explains: ‘My rights period was expiring with Discovery, and so as any prudent producer would do, I entered into discussions with a number of different networks in cable, and USA [Network] made me a very favorable offer.’
The deal with USA Network is for domestic rights only, which leaves the door open for Burnett to sell the show internationally. The original agreement with Discovery was for global rights, which Burnett no longer sees as advantageous. ‘While reaching many countries, the viewership at this early stage in their international franchise is still quite low. I can now sell to mainstream terrestrial broadcasters.’
Lynn McReynolds, Discovery’s VP of communications, says the cablecaster wasn’t interested in anything less than world rights. ‘We view this as a global event, and it makes sense for us to broadcast it everywhere, given the amount of resources we put behind it.’ Burnett estimates Eco-Challenge’s average budget at around US$7 million each year.
Both Burnett and McReynolds concur that there is no ill will over the parting. In fact, Burnett and Discovery are currently gearing up to shoot the 1999 event (which takes place in Patagonia, Argentina, from December 1-12) in high definition, using Sony’s HDCAM one-piece camcorders.
The HD version of the program will be made available to Discovery’s distribution partners with HDTV platforms and will be converted to standard definition for international broadcast on Discovery. The premiere is set for April on Discovery in the U.S. and Canada, where it will air as a four-part mini-series.
USA Network takes over the broadcast of Eco-Challenge 2000, which will happen in Sabah, Borneo, in August 2000 and air in the first half of 2001. Gordon Beck, USA Network’s senior VP of sports and productions says he jumped at the chance to pick up Eco-Challenge. ‘We made sure we came up with a way to get it,’ Beck says. ‘We have the rights to the next three races and options to keep going as long as we want to go.’ Merchandising and licensing will be coordinated and shared with Burnett, he adds.
While recognizing USA Network’s good fortune, Beck isn’t sure why Discovery let go of the event. ‘They did have some changes in their top levels of management,’ he notes. ‘It happens in a lot of companies, where the founders or the top executives may be moving around and new guys come in who either create or have a different agenda. That may have contributed to it, or it may simply have been a matter of timing.’