ART-Al Jazeera deal clarified, in part
Chris Forrester

Arab & Radio & Television (ART), the largest pay-TV broadcaster in the Middle East, has reportedly sold six sports channels to Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s sports division. The deal, as yet unconfirmed, could see a billion-dollar cash payment made to ART.

ART will evidently continue to transmit its remaining bouquet of channels to subscribers, although there are local concerns over longer-term job prospects in Amman, Jordan, where ART’s sports operation were based in a brand new management and play-out HQ as part of Jordan’s Media City. ART plays out about 65 channels from Amman.

In essence Al Jazeera gets the exclusive content of 6 ART channels although there are questions as to whether some of the minor Arab soccer leagues are part of the transfer. The Jordanian, Syrian and Sudanese leagues may not be transferred to Al Jazeera. Specifically excluded, according to local reports are two ART channels that show the all-important Saudi soccer leagues.

The key question now concerns how Al Jazeera will monetise its new sports content. Al Jazeera Sport (slogan “The sport is our world, and the world is our field”) has already grown its soccer portfolio at the expense of ART, buying the UEFA Champions League TV rights for 3 seasons (starting 2009-2010) and outbidding ART in the process. Al Jazeera claims 1m paying subscribers. Ayman Jadah, Al Jazeera's General Manager, recently said: “Right now, we have about one million subscribers. We are looking at a figure of three million subscribers in the next two years.” Al Jazeera already has 8 sports channels on air.

Given the spectacular sums paid by Gulf broadcasters over recent years, it might be argued that picking up these rights from ART for a billion dollars or two is a cheap price to pay for sports supremecy. Al Jazeera currently charges around $65 per month for its viewing card, good for use in Irdeto-equipped set-top boxes (widely available in the Gulf). However, ART is in the process of dramatically upgrading its set-top boxes, switching out of Irdeto encryption and using ViaAccess and a box that’s been described as “super secure” from piracy.

What now needs to be clarified is whether Al Jazeera’s new cluster of sports channels will continue to be available on ART. Our guess is that they will, with ART’s subscription management system then retailing Al Jazeera’s portfolio. But this still needs clarification.