Relief for sport fans as blackout ends

Some report return of channels after 10-day interruption, but it is unclear if issue is resolved.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Dec 29, 2011 - Shoppers line up at the Etisalat stall at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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DUBAI // Some American football fans were celebrating yesterday as a 10-day blackout on their favourite sport television channels appeared to have ended.

Fans who subscribe to the US-based ESPN channels via Etisalat's eVision service had been unable to watch National Football League games or college football since New Year's Eve because of a contract standoff between Etisalat and the Middle East broadcast rights holder Al Jazeera.

While it was unclear last night whether the three channels had been restored to all eVision subscribers across the UAE, some customers were reporting that the service was working again.

"I just got home and checked the television and now the channels were working," Daniel Hall, an assistant provost at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Abu Dhabi, said. "It's a huge relief because now I can watch the college football game on Tuesday morning."

Mr Hall said he had already missed the Rose Bowl final involving his home team, the Oregon Ducks, last week, and he hoped there would be no further disruptions. "I was all set to get up at 4.30am on Tuesday and watch online, which would basically have been a small graphic of the pitch and reading the commentary. It's a big relief," he said.

Phil Daly, an IT consultant who lives in Abu Dhabi, had been concerned that the contractual negotiations would drag on for weeks.

"It's very annoying because it's affecting some very big games," he said, speaking hours before the first reports that the sport channels had been restored. "We are paying for this service but aren't getting anything for it. I hope Etisalat offer people their money back."

The blackout was caused after a contract between Etisalat and Al Jazeera expired at the end of last year.

On Sunday, Humaid Al Suwaidi, the Etisalat eVision chief executive, had said he hoped that a new contract would be agreed upon "very, very soon", but could not give a date.

It is still unclear if a new contract has been signed. Mr Al Suwaidi would not comment yesterday on the channels' reinstatement, nor would he say whether customers would be refunded for the service interruption.

Mark Drummond, the provost at HCT, said a similar blackout around this time last year had been blamed on technical causes.

"This blackout could not have come at a worse time," he said, reflecting on the fact that the NFL playoffs are now taking place.

"If it was in July when the only thing on would have been golf, no one would have cared. But it's the high season so to speak, when all the big games are played."

Mr Drummond, who is also a big basketball fan, had been worried he would miss many US college basketball matches as well.

"It's not the end of the world but we pay for a service and we expect to be able to use that service," he said.

Al Jazeera bought the rights to screen ESPN channels from the Arab Radio and Television Network (Art) in November 2010.

Under the agreement, Art shut down its sport channels on the last day of 2010, but subscribers were to receive their content through Al Jazeera channels.

However, a technical fault developed when the broadcast frequencies were changed, and the ESPN stations went off the air for about three days.