DUBAI // The World Cup broadcaster Al Jazeera Sport faced growing pressure yesterday to refund the cost of TV viewing cards as technical glitches continued to blight its coverage of the tournament in South Africa. Angry football fans who paid up to Dh600 for the cards have complained of pixellated images, commentaries in the wrong language and blank screens since most of the opening match between South Africa and Mexico last Friday was blacked out.
The same problems affected the Argentina vs Nigeria and England vs USA matches the following day, and, after a brief improvement for two days, large parts of Tuesday night's match between Brazil and North Korea suffered the same fate. Apart from a brief statement last week in which they claimed that their signal was being jammed and blocked by unidentified computer hackers, Al Jazeera has refused to comment on customers' complaints.
Viewer David Scott, who was in the Shangri-La hotel in Abu Dhabi last night watching Switzerland's shock victory over Spain, said: "I don't believe in this day and age that it can be sabotage. Not to be disrespectful, but it doesn't happen in the UK. People would be up in arms. They pay a lot of money for this." The silence from the Qatar-based broadcaster, which owns exclusive rights to broadcast the tournament throughout the Middle East and North Africa, has diverted complaints to secondary providers - including evision, Etisalat's TV cable operator - who are powerless to act because they themselves are supplied by Al Jazeera.
One evision customer, Shaun, 31, from Abu Dhabi, who paid Dh295 for a World Cup package, said: "I got activated just in time for the Brazil-Korea game, but then there was a problem with the feed." When he went to a hotel to watch what he hoped would be clearer broadcasts of matches, he said the screen kept going blank and the audio signal was missing. "We lost the commentary in English," he said. "I can understand Arabic - I grew up in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - but it's really frustrating.
Another evision subscriber, Martin, 30, who lives in Abu Dhabi and works in the airline industry, said he paid Dh370 for World Cup coverage and found that all the channels were working except those in the World Cup package. "The frustration is, you're watching the Food Network, but the one you've paid extra for doesn't work," Martin said. Anger at Al Jazeera was not confined to the UAE, with viewers throughout the Middle East complaining about poor signals. One blogger told stuffmideast.com: "Al Jazeera Sport has expanded their range of channels for this World Cup, and it would seem painfully obvious, certainly to anyone in TV, that they simply don't have the bandwidth to transmit so many simultaneous football games." Another football fan in Gaza said: "What happened is shameful. The World Cup only happens every four years. We have lost our patience with this mistake." The complaints about World Cup matches being blacked out have added to concerns about the prices being charged by some distributors and retailers for Al Jazeera Sport World Cup viewing cards. Consumer protection officials from the Ministry of Economy asked the broadcaster to publish adverts in newspapers reminding customers of the official cost of the card to avoid price gouging. Under the official pricing, individual customers, depending on their existing package, pay between Dh300 and Dh600 to obtain Al Jazeera's World Cup channels. Businesses that planned to show the games to the public were charged between Dh3,000 and Dh5,000. The ministry said viewers who believed they had been victims of price gouging should keep their receipts and contact its hotline on 600522225. firstname.lastname@example.org