TVNZ boss Kevin Kenrick's promise that his network will screen more free-to-air sport has come true - but through a surprise partnership with Sky rather than its Rugby World Cup partner Spark.

Sky says TVNZ is its free-to-air partner for the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, in 2020.

The state-owned broadcaster had to pay to secure its position, though the amount is being kept under wraps.

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"The value of this deal is in two parts - the rights fee that TVNZ is paying us to become free-to-air partner, and being able to draw on the promotional power of our collective platforms," a Sky insider tells the Herald.

Sky could not immediately comment on any ad revenue sharing provisions. Or on fair-dealing - that is, whether TVNZ's 1 News will be allowed to show longer highlights than other media.

Tokyo medal contender Eliza McCartney. Photo / Photosport
Tokyo medal contender Eliza McCartney. Photo / Photosport

Under the partnership, Sky will stream and broadcast all of the Tokyo 2020 action through extensive coverage across 12 HD channels and its streaming platforms, Sky CEO Martin Stewart says.

TVNZ 1 will have 12 hours of free-to-air coverage throughout each afternoon and evening, with a break for 1 News at 6pm and Seven Sharp.

The state-owned broadcaster will also offer livestreamed Olympic action, but won't have same on-demand catch-up options as Sky's various digital platforms.

The Herald understands that Sky's Tokyo 2020 contract contains a requirement to screen a substantial amount of content free-to-air.

For the 2016 Rio de Janeiro summer Olympics, Sky pumped its free coverage through its Prime channel - with then-CEO John Fellet crediting the games for a bump in subscriber numbers but also bemoaning the high-cost of coverage. This time, some of the tab will be defrayed by a TVNZ partnership - just as Spark offset some of its estimated $13m in 2019 Rugby World Cup rights costs via tie-up with the state-owned broadcaster.

TVNZ recently said it would swing to a $17m loss in its 2020, with its dividend to the government suspended for the foreseeable future.

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Chief executive Kevin Kenrick said the red ink would be related, in part, to a restructure to focus more on streaming, plus a move to ramp up local content in a bid to be more competitive against large-scale global competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and Apple TV+.

Kenrick also told the Herald that TVNZ - which already holds rights to the next America's Cup - would have more free-to-air sport.

A hurly-burly environment saw TVNZ lose out to Sky for rights to the next Commonwealth Games just weeks later, even if the pair are now in bed for Tokyo.

Kenrick's local content and sport-based turnaround plan comes as cabinet mules broadcasting changes, including - according to leaks - the possible disestablishment of TVNZ and RNZ and the creation of a single state broadcaster. Communications, Digital Media and Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi has said he will make a statement before Christmas, though few are expecting a definitive plan at this point.

Sky meanwhile has been able to renew key Sanzaar and netball deals, but seen domestic cricket rights go to Spark Sport.

Sky shares closed yesterday at 84c. The stock is down 63 per cent for the year.