Pay-TV's shrinking pains

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Sayed Moawad (R) of Egypt tackles Chinedu Obasi of Nigeria during the Africa Cup of Nations match between Nigeria and Egypt in Benguela, Angola, 12 January 2010. EPA

No one thought that shrinking the region's pay-TV market from four providers down to something that looks a whole lot more like two was going to be easy. But nor did many people who heard the news of Al Jazeera's purchase of ART's sports rights last November probably guess how many problems would come up.

The first sign that something was wrong came on New Year's Day, the day after ART officially shut down its sports channels. ART subscribers were supposed to be able to see the same games they had signed up for through Al Jazeera's sports channels +1 thorugh +8, but some channels, such as ESPN, simply went black. One source, who gets his TV service through du, said he had invited a whole party over to watch football, only to find there was no football to watch. Awkward.

Du explains:

Following the recent acqusition of the ART group of sports channels by Al Jazeera sport network, we had to drop the following channels from ART, Pehla and First Net packages: ART sports 1-9 (not broadcast anymore), ESPN 1, ESPN classic and ESPN NASN. However, we are glad to finform that as of January 11, du TV subscribers are receiving the Al Jazeera package of channels which include JSC +1 to +10 and one Al Jazeera HD sports channel as part of the above packages and the du Family Entertainment package. 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.

OK, fair enough -- sometimes it takes a week to get one's act together when dealing with change on this scale. E-Vision's chief executive, Humaid Rashid Sahoo, offered a similar statement, saying that ESPN has recently been restored to its subscribers' channels. Nawaf Tamimi, the head of PR at ART, said the blackout was due to "technical problems" that have since been solved. But in Mr Sahoo's explanation, he alludes to Al Jazeera's much bigger problem: The Africa Cup of Nations.

Al Jazeera bought ART's rights with its eyes mostly focused on a single prize: the FIFA World Cup. What it didn't bargain for, according to Khaled Elcheik, the managing editor of our sister sports portal,, was how soon the Africa Cup of Nations would be coming up. Al Jazeera announced plans to put the games, which started on Jan 10, on its encrypted channels outside of the ART deal, +9 and +10, leading to an "uprising" among football fans in Egypt, one of the participants in this year's cup. They then reportedly tried to put the games on terrestrial TV in the three participating nations (also including Tunisia and Algeria), but negotiations broke down. In an eleventh hour save, they threw the games onto their free-to-air satellite feed to avoid full-scale revolt. (Angry pay-TV customers tend to be more inclined toward piracy, a problem that Al Jazeera had to deal with in earnest a few years back.)

Al Jazeera's sports department could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile football fans across Africa are waiting to see how the rest of the cup games, which stretch until Jan 31, will be handled.