GCN+ Closing Down

GCN+ Closing Down

There was some sad news on Wednesday, when Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) announced that GCN+ will be closing down in December this year. Unfortunately, it perhaps wasn’t surprising news set against a plurality of WBD sports brands and a massive need for WBD to cut costs throughout its business to service an enormous debt load.

GCN+ is the streaming service that offers access to live and on-demand cycling, covering just about every major televised cycle race in the world, plus a series of now more than 200 documentaries covering everything from the history of the sport, to travelogues filmed in remote parts of the world.

In their closure announcement video, embedded above, they point out that GCN itself is going nowhere, and they will continue to offer YouTube videos.

GCN started out as a YouTube channel, expanding to cover not just cycling, but mountain biking and triathlons, before the parent company, Play Sports Network (PSN), was first partially and then later fully acquired by Discovery in 2021.

That Discovery investment saw the channel up its game, with more dedicated resources for coverage of major races, and of course, the launch of GCN+ itself.

Now it should be said that live TV coverage of cycling is going nowhere. Cycling has always been a major sporting asset of Eurosport, also owned by Discovery. But following it’s initial purchase of PSN, Discovery also completed the vastly bigger acquisition of Warner Brothers to form WBD. And since then, the way sports and cycling are distributed across WBD’s various platforms has become complicated.

Much of GCN+’s live cycling coverage was co-branded with Eurosport, the sports channel that Discovery took full ownership of in 2015. Before GCN+ launched, a Eurosport streaming service had been launched as a standalone offering. Then in due course, Discovery+ was launched, which incorporated Eurosport’s cycling coverage alongside the regular reality TV fare that the Discovery TV channels are best known for.

Discovery began to invest substantially in sports and in 2015 it bid big to win pan-European Olympic rights in a multi-year deal (Some rights had already been awarded to others in some territories, such as the BBC in the UK, but Discovery would do deals to share and sub-licence rights). Earlier this year, WBD extended those rights through until the 2032 Olympics cycle.

But with all these sports brand under its umbrella, customers had multiple ways to access the same live cycling:

  • GCN+ which came with live cycling, but also cycling documentaries. Importantly, this was available globally in multiple languages, albeit with some territorial rights restrictions.
  • Eurosport the pan-European sports network that had mostly previously been known as a linear TV channel available in bundles on satellite and cable television. Eurosport began to sell itself as an over-the-top streaming service that consumers could buy outside of a multi-channel TV offering from the likes of Sky. Notably, in addition to cycling, Eurosport carried other sports including winter sports, tennis, snooker and motorsports. The exact rights available did vary by territory, with Eurosport in the UK being known as British Eurosport for a period. But this was unsurprisingly a European operation with a headquarters in Paris, and notably, although those who accessed Eurosport via its streaming service had access to the live cycling from GCN+, they did not have access to the library of GCN+ documentaries.
  • Discovery+ which has rolled out region by region, but was a global offering. Eurosport was incorporated into most tiers of this offering, replicating the cycling and sports offering of the Eurosport streaming product.

On air, this did mean that three separate brands were communicated to customers. Live cycling coverage was co-branded as GCN+/Eurosport, with streaming viewers getting the coverage ad-free.

An aside here is that if you had streaming access to Eurosport via Sky, then you could stream Eurosport via Sky Go, but you’d be getting the TV version of the channel including advertising and not the digital version.

This all got further complicated earlier in 2023 when BT entered into a deal with WBD to let the latter take control of what had previously been known as BT Sport. Now renamed TNT Sports, the channel has a lot of premium sports rights including Premier League and Champions League football rights, alongside other UK rights to football from across Europe, Premiership rugby, NBA, UFC, WWE and a multitude of other sports.

Something probably had to give at this point, with too many competing brands – TNT Sports, Eurosport, Discovery+ and GCN+. And around this time, WBD said that the new TNT Sports would in due course supersede Eurosport as its major sports brand.

A further aside is that the Max app in the US, which is the top level WBD app in that country, has recently added sport to its offering. But it has eschewed the TNT Sports brand, which has long been a popular cable channel carrying the likes of NBA coverage. Instead, on their streaming platform they’re using Bleacher Report as their sports brand. It’s basically to avoid cable carriers getting annoyed that they’re offering sports via an over-the-top streaming service. But no, Bleacher Report is a meaningless brand globally.

It was notable at recent UCI Track Champions’ League events, they actually used the Warner Bros. Discovery parent company name in some branding! That at least dodges the need to have four different WBD sports brands.

A complexity in all of this is that sports rights are very territorial. What is available on a channel in one country might not be available in another country. Pretty much everything that TNT Sports in the UK carries is UK-only. Eurosport itself has different packages of rights in different European regions. And so it goes on.

So part of the closure of GCN+ is probably spring cleaning from WBD, who have too many sports brands and need to simplify their offering. GCN+ works brilliantly as a cycling destination, but WBD’s wider sports were too complicated.

Set against this are previously reported losses for PSN from 2021, although that dates from around the Discovery full takeover.

I strongly suspect that underlying the closure of GCN+ is the massive debt burden that parent WBD took on when the Discovery-Warner Brothers takeover took place. The combined company still has $43bn of debt to service, and although that is being reduced over time, WBD is in a serious belt-tightening mode.

WBD CEO David Zaslav has been looking at aggressive cost cutting across the board as he tries to pay down those billions of debt, at the same time transitioning the company away from the dying traditional linear multi-channel world of cable and satellite, and into the new world of streaming services.

Earlier this year, he rebranded HBO Max as Max in the US, and incorporated Discovery+ programming into the Max app – pushing up subscription prices as he went. In the US, the Max app is the main WBD offering, and although it has rolled out in other parts of the world, Max has not launched in some major European markets (the deal to licence HBO programming to Sky in the UK, Germany and Italy seemingly being too lucrative for him to stop taking the money from the NBC Comcast company, and instead set up a costly streaming service in those countries).

More recently, we’ve seen WBD do everything from pull complete, or near complete films from ever being shown, instead taking a tax write-off. Batgirl and a Scooby Doo film suffered this fate. In the last week, Coyote vs. Acme, a live action film featuring the Road Runner cartoon character was also announced as being pulled despite the film being complete and featuring stars such as John Cena. The outcry surrounding that case has seen WBD relent, and it is currently trying to sell the film to another vendor.

Separately, there have been other high-profile cancellations of big budget TV shows like Westworld which has been seen to underperform. But some of those series have been pulled entirely from the Max library, instead popping up on so-called FAST channels – ad-funded streamers from the likes of Pluto and Tubi.

Zaslav has even started sub-licencing the DC comics films to Netflix in the US on a non-exclusive basis. Disney’s Bob Iger once likened the renting of your premium assets to a direct competitor as “selling nuclear weapons to the enemy.” But the need of WBD to hit its numbers for Wall St and pay down that debt means that WBD has no choice.

With immaculate timing, The New York Times has a massive feature on Zaslav that has just come out and is well worth a read to understand the wider background to WBD’s troubles.

So it’s against this massive cost saving background that the GCN+ news comes. And while the goings on of Zaslav in Hollywood might seem unconnected to the cycling media world, they most undoubtedly are.

I would hope that this means that at the very least, all the live cycling we’ve come to expect from GCN+ will at least be available on the Discovery+ platform. But there are no guarantees that every mid-week cyclocross race from Belgium will be there.

GCN+ was actually pretty cheap in the scheme of things – costing around £40 a year which is good value in 2023. Eurosport as a standalone digital offering no longer exists, so cycling consumers have to step up to Discovery+ which is more like £6.99 a month (so £83.88 a year) for the Standard bundle. A cheaper £3.99 a month “Basic” bundle is available, but it only includes reality only and no sport. There’s also a “Premium” tier which costs £29.99 a month (£359.88 a year) which includes TNT Sports (i.e. Premier League and Champions’ League football amongst other things).

One would hope that the Standard bundle will continue to carry the broad range of cycling coverage, including highlights packages that GCN+ had. But it’s not clear. And while the digital streaming cycling offerings are currently ad-free – a big part of the GCN+ offer – there’s no guarantee that will continue. All WBD’s other sports offerings do incorporate ads.

I would also note that cycling is somewhat buried within the Discovery+ app. When I looked last night to see if I could catch up with some cyclo-cross coverage from the weekend, the only cycling I could immediately find was coverage of the UCI Track Champions’ League, which WBD has been instrumental in setting up. I did find it via search, but the main app was keener to push me towards TNT Sports’ offerings.

Another small issue that is immediately apparent is that the Discovery+ player seems to only top out at 16x speed. When you’re catching up on a full stage of the Tour de France, perhaps watching in delay, the GCN+ player with up to 256x speed is much appreciated when ploughing through a dull transitional stage!

I did get an email yesterday from GCN announcing the closure, including details of a pro-rata refund on my annual subscription. But the email was otherwise very light in detail. There was precisely no promotion of other services that I could access to continue to watch live cycling – just the news of the closure of GCN+. That felt like a massively missed opportunity.

My suspicion is because cycling is only really included in the European version of Discovery+, and they’ve just not worked out a plan for the rest of the world.

And no promises have been made for the catalogue of GCN+ documentaries. Given that these are basically all made in-house and have been paid for, one would expect them to end up sitting somewhere, even if it’s just on YouTube.

Meanwhile, further compounding things is that WBD is reported to have placed Play Sports Network up for sale. That would basically separate GCN in its ongoing YouTube and website form, from the live cycling coverage. As of now, there is decent overlap between the pair – the GCN YouTube side of things acting as a promotional channel to push fans towards the paid offering.

WBD is going all in on Discovery+ being its platform of the future, but I’ve not really even addressed that randomness of a service that offers 90 Day Fiancée, Naked and Afraid, Dr Pimple Popper and Ghost Adventures, also being the home of the Tour de France and the UEFA Champions’ League!

To be honest, I don’t really see the crossover. (The Discovery+ app desperately pushes Richard Hammond’s Workshop every time I open it, which I am simply not interested in. I will confess to enjoying the odd episode of Wheeler Dealers however.)

Whether GCN+ really made viable financial sense, I don’t know. But it seems obvious that being part of WBD means that its closure perhaps wasn’t a surprise. But nonetheless, it’s all a real shame.

I should also add that none of this will be great for the 100+ people who are losing their jobs according to The Escape Collective. It’s definitely a tough time for them.



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