The Middle East's pay-television market is feeling the pain of a rocky technical transition after Arab Radio and Television Network (ART) sold its sports rights to Al Jazeera in November.
Al Jazeera became the undisputed king of regional pay-TV sports on November 24, when it acquired from ART the regional rights to this year's FIFA World Cup and a host of regional football leagues and premium sport channels such as ESPN. Under the agreement, ART would shut down its sports channels on December 31, but ART subscribers would receive through Al Jazeera-branded channels the content they used to receive from ART.
But when New Year's Day rolled around, some sports viewers got a nasty surprise. Fans of American football who had planned to celebrate the holiday by watching a game on ESPN with friends found that the channel had disappeared. According to Nawaf Tamimi, a spokesman for ART, ESPN was lost for only a few days because of technical problems in the transition. "It was only a technical problem that happened from the changes in frequencies," he said. "It was for two or three days only."
An official from du, which offers a family package that formerly included the ART package as well as ESPN, said company officials were working on bringing ESPN back into du's basic television offering. With Al Jazeera's acquisition of ART's sport content, the official said, du had to drop several channels that it used to receive from ART, including ESPN 1, ESPN Classic and ESPN America. He said that on January 11, du TV began offering its customers much of the former ART sports content through Al Jazeera, but that this did not include ESPN.
"We are closely working with Al Jazeera to add the new suite of sport channels, being ESPN Classic, ESPN America, ESPN and the NBA Channel," he said. Humaid Rashid Sahoo, the chief executive of E-Vision, Etisalat's television service, said E-Vision subscribers could now watch ESPN through Al Jazeera's channels. "We are pleased to announced that these channels have been restored to our valued customers," he said.
Nasser al Khalifi, the general manager of Al Jazeera Sports, said that ESPN would from now on be available through Al Jazeera's new US$75 (Dh275) subscription package. However, just as ESPN was being restored to some customers, a storm was brewing over another coveted sports property: the Africa Cup of Nations. Al Jazeera recently bought the regional broadcast rights to the tournament, which began in Angola on January 10.
Many ART subscribers signed up last year to see the matches in the three-week contest, but Al Jazeera provoked outrage among football fans when it decided to put the tournament on encrypted channels that fell outside of its sharing agreement with ART. "In our agreement with Al Jazeera, the thought was that the Africa Cup of Nations would be broadcast on one of their channels - which is available to our subscribers, but they surprised us by coming up with new channels, and putting it on those channels," Mr Tamimi said. "This caused a huge reaction from the viewers, especially in Egypt, as Egypt is playing in those games."
Al Jazeera tried to negotiate with Egyptian terrestrial broadcast television to air the games there, but negotiations broke down after Al Jazeera requested a "staggering $10 million a game", Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper reported. As the matches got under way, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) tried again to buy the terrestrial broadcast rights, this time for $9m, but in the end rejected the deal because it allowed the broadcast of only 10 of the tournament's matches, with no say over which games were selected, reported Rapid TV News, an online service that covers the television industry.
Al Jazeera then made a stunning 11th-hour save on the eve of Egypt's match with Nigeria, on January 12, and decided to carry the games on its free-to-air channel. It did the same with the Tunisia-Zambia game the next day. "We are not prejudiced against the local channels, including Egypt, and our desire is not to prevent them from covering this tournament," Mr al Khalifi of Al Jazeera Sports said in a press statement. "We offered to sell some of the matches on ERTU for a reasonable price compared to the cost we paid to acquire the rights of the tournament.
"We received the ERTU's agreement but then they changed their mind after not getting the necessary funding - The contracts were redrawn and we offered a lower price in a genuine attempt to conclude the matter in the best possible manner, but the same was repeated." Khaldoun Elcheik, the managing editor of Super.ae, the sports portal of Abu Dhabi Media Company - which also owns The National - said he believed Al Jazeera bought the rights from ART with its eyes on a single prize, the FIFA World Cup, and did not consider how quickly the Africa Cup of Nations would be coming along after the switch-over. The tournament runs through the end of the month.
Al Jazeera's lack of a clear plan for the Africa Cup of Nations could hurt its ability to fully profit from the FIFA World Cup, since there were several reports of increased piracy in the days of confusion leading up to Al Jazeera's decision to carry the games free-to-air. Al Jazeera increased its subscription price in Egypt from 120 Egyptian pounds (Dh81) to 400 pounds before the African tournament, increasing the incentive for football fans to procure illegal connections or shared-cable access.
Previous broadcasts of the FIFA World Cup in the Middle East have faced piracy problems, and some industry experts think that with its price increase, Al Jazeera has weakened its ability to fight piracy. About 20,000 ART subscribers bought access to the World Cup in advance last year, and Mr Tamimi said part of ART's agreement with Al Jazeera was to ensure that these people would have access to the matches in June. So far, Al Jazeera has not decided how it wants to market its most valuable offering, or whether ART will have a role.
For the moment, Mr al Khalifi said the decision to put the Africa Cup of Nations games on free-to-air television was an effort to create goodwill among its customers. "We did it for the Egyptian and the Tunisian people," he says. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org