By Sahil Patel
The NFL raised more than a few eyebrows earlier this year when it announced plans to live-stream a regular season game next season. The move is certainly interesting, and could pave the way for the league to distribute more games digitally in the future.
Except it’s not the first time the NFL has delivered a broadcast exclusively via the internet. The league has done it before. It was in Europe. In 1999. And it wasn’t just one game, the NFL streamed one game every Sunday during the entire season.
This all happened because of a European ISP provider called Chello Broadband. The CEO of Chello at the time? Roger Lynch.
Look at the career of Roger Lynch, who started out as an investment banker for Morgan Stanley, and one thing is apparent: He has a knack for beating other innovators to the punch by several years — if not a decade.
In the case of the NFL, it was distributing games in a fashion that is still considered groundbreaking 16 years later.
During his time at Morgan Stanley, he was also involved in the Broadcast.com IPO. For those unfamiliar, Broadcast.com was somewhat of a precursor to YouTube. The IPO made a billionaire out of co-founder Mark Cuban.
Chello Broadband was launched by UGC (which is the former name of European pay-TV giant Liberty Global) during a time when broadband was not prevalent in Europe.
“While at Morgan Stanley, I did a large IPO for what is now Liberty Global. After taking it public, they approached me to join them — they wanted to set up a broadband internet business,” recalls Lynch. “That was an exciting time. We had to build a lot of technology.”
“He came into a very complex environment,” says Sudhir Ispahani, former CTO of Chello Broadband and later Liberty Global. “We had to take assets out of multiple countries and centralize it under Chello. That could be very political and mind-numbing at times, because he had to deal with the CEOs of all of these different, loosely-knitted companies.”
In its first 18 months, Chello grew to half-a-million customers, and eventually expanded to 10 countries across Europe.
You might be surprised to know that Lynch has won both an Emmy and a BAFTA.
This happened during his time as the CEO of a London-based IPTV technology company called Video Networks International, which was building on-demand networks and channels as early as 2003. The Emmy came for Scamp, a VOD channel for children’s content, and the BAFTA came for V:MX, a network of channels for music video content.
“We had to build and operate our own network,” says Lynch of the time. In addition to building its own on-demand channels, Video Networks also created channels for major TV content partners. “We carried all of the major kids’ channels that are distributed around the world,” says Lynch.
“Video on demand was nascent for cable operators back then,” adds Ispahani. “He has always been a guy who’s been willing to try innovative approaches to break barriers in content and technology.”
In 2009, Lynch moved back to the US and joined Dish Network. As EVP of advanced technologies, Lynch was asked to do one thing: Help the satellite giant prepare for the future of television.
“For a lot of people in the industry, it felt like a counter-intuitive move: ‘You’re a new-tech, new-media guy, why are you going to a satellite provider?’ The real reason I joined was because Charlie [Ergen] is a visionary,” says Lynch. “He approached me and basically said that the traditional pay-TV business was at some point going to reach maturity and then go on a decline. He wanted to build the next-generation TV service.”
It would take nearly six years for Sling TV to become a reality.
In the meantime, the company built and launched DishWorld, an over-the-top video service that allowed customers to subscribe to international TV channels. It became a precursor to Sling TV. “It’s the smartest thing we ever did,” says Lynch. “The international channels business in the US was declining industry wide, and now it’s a growth market because our growth [with DishWorld] has offset the decline in traditional pay-TV for those channels.”
With Sling TV, Lynch and company hoped to do the same. “I always knew we would eventually get the rights,” says Lynch. “The question was when, not if, the dam was going to break.”
The dam broke when Disney agreed to allow its channels, including ESPN, to be sold over-the-top. “We learned that they were worried about the same thing that Charlie was when he hired me,” says Lynch. “Younger demos are not signing up for pay-TV at the same rate and pay-TV bills are getting more expensive.”
Once Disney signed on, others including Scripps, Turner, and eventually even HBO followed suit. Today the service offers several bundles of channels at an affordable rate, and reportedly has an audience of more than 100,000 subscribers.
For Sling TV to be a success, it needs to work. So far, the service has suffered some issues during major nights on the TV calendar.
Then again, the first true attempt at disrupting the expensive cable bundle does not come without risk. But for a man who convinced the NFL to live-stream games online more than a decade ago, risk is just part of the business.
“When I joined Chello, we were owned by the largest cable company in Europe,” says Lynch. “I remember having a conversation with the CEO, and saying, ‘You realize that some day people are going to use their broadband connections to watch movies and TV?’ He thought I was off my rocker. ‘First off, I think you’re wrong that would never happen. Second, we would just block it.”
“That’s the mentality of most cable companies. They have always been gatekeepers of programming. The internet is the antithesis of that. There should be no gatekeepers.”