Discovery is to shut its European broadcasting base in London as the US TV giant behind channels including Animal Planet and Eurosport mulls post-Brexit plans for a new continental hub.
Discovery broadcasts more than 100 TV channels across Europe from its headquarters in west London, making the pay-TV giant the biggest broadcaster to use the UK as a hub for the continent.
The Guardian has learned that Discovery is to shut the European playout hub for broadcasting its channels, affecting up to 100 jobs, as it moves to a US-based transmission system. However, it will continue to employ 1,300 people in the UK, where it makes programmes and broadcasts 16 channels to British viewers.
The company said that while it will move the playout of non-live channels – it airs shows from Gold Rush to Running Wild with Bear Grylls – it will look to develop the playout centre as a hub for sport and live broadcasting.
However, Discovery, which owns Eurosport and has the exclusive European TV rights to the Olympics and jointly airs Wimbledon in a deal with the BBC, already has a major sports TV facility in Paris.
Discovery will continue to hold all of its TV licences with the UK broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, which under European Union rules means it can broadcast across the continent. However, broadcasters and Ofcom have warned the government that if it fails to strike a deal to keep EU-wide broadcast rights post-Brexit, companies will have to look to relocate significant parts of their businesses and TV licensing arrangements to the continent to continue to transmit across Europe.
“This is part of our vision to move to a more agile operational technology model,” a spokeswoman for Discovery said. “This has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with technology innovation being core to our company and brand.”
Nevertheless, Discovery has been evaluating the location for its European broadcasting hub if a Brexit TV deal is not struck. Discovery’s decision to close its European playout base will be a stark reminder for the government of how the world’s biggest TV companies are not wedded to the UK.
Discovery is understood to have lined up options for Amsterdam, where businesses including Netflix have their European headquarters, and Warsaw. Poland is the home base of the Discovery executive, Kasia Kieli, who was promoted to become the broadcaster’s head of Europe in November, and after Discovery’s $12bn takeover of rival Scripps has become home to one of its largest workforces and bases in Europe.
In November, the Ofcom chief executive, Sharon White, revealed to an audience in Brussels that a number of major UK-based broadcasters have told her they have contingency plans to move editorial functions to other cities in Europe.
While there is no suggestion of large-scale job cuts post-Brexit, internally Discovery has quietly stopped calling London its international headquarters.
“We are transforming our business and that means there will be change,” the spokeswoman said. “Across our business, we are constantly looking at ways to improve the operational effectiveness and efficiency of our business, while seeking new opportunities to grow.”
One source said that shutting the playout centre is part of a global strategy being implemented by Discovery – and other traditional broadcasters – to develop a digital structure in the fightback against the rise of new rivals such as Netflix. Discovery was the first to move to a cloud-based playout system with its US channels last year. “Brexit forced the issue to be focused on but it is about changing consumer behaviour and the digital threat,” the source said.
The Commercial Broadcasters Association (COBA), which is chaired by the senior Discovery executive Susanna Dinnage, has said that if Brexit results in UK TV licences no longer allowing EU-wide broadcast it could cost the economy £1bn in annual investment from international broadcasters. US giants including Disney, MTV-owner Viacom and Time Warner’s Turner use the UK and it’s licensing regime as a hub to broadcast across Europe.