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Straight Talk Media & Entertainment

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In June, the major powers of the Gulf and the Arab world initiated a widespread political and commercial boycott of Qatar, citing political practices that they said destabilized the region. The boycott interrupted the distribution of Qatari news broadcaster Al Jazeera and its premium sports channels, which operate under the beIN brand across the region. The loss of access to well-known sports channels that audiences had paid for triggered a wave of anxiety in the countries that boycotted Qatar – especially among their many ardent international soccer fans – and for beIN itself.

The UAE was the first to block beIN from its airwaves, alongside regional bans on Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt followed by banning imports of beIN STBs as well as the sale and renewal of beIN subscriptions. Only this week, UAE CSPs Etisalat and Du reopened access to beIN’s sports channels, as well as popular Al Jazeera-backed children’s channels Baraem and Jeem TV, which too were banned. The longer a total blockade remained in place, the more serious the problems became both for beIN and for the countries that were leading the boycott, whose audiences were reacting poorly to the loss of content they paid for and that many fervently wanted to watch.

Qatar’s neighbors most likely knew that a blockade of beIN was unsustainable, given the strength and duration of its sports rights agreements, which includes blue-ribbon events such as the next two World Cup tournaments (one of which will be held in Qatar). Notably, the crisis escalated as the major European soccer leagues went into their summer break, giving all parties breathing space to consider the consequences if audiences were denied access to soccer coverage – undoubtedly the most popular sports content in the Arab world – for sustained periods when the European leagues started again in August.

The pull of top-tier sports TV – and consequently beIN – was irresistible in the end, and the restrictions are slowly being lifted. Had the Gulf crisis remained unresolved by the time the major European soccer leagues started in the fall, widespread audience dissatisfaction and a huge spike in piracy would have been obvious consequences. This would have been a problem for rights owners, especially those with major European soccer rights. There have been tensions between rights owners and regional service providers regarding clamping down on illegal streams of regional broadcasts to viewers around the world, and all parties are sensitive to further problems with distribution in the region during the approach to the World Cup in Qatar.

Whatever the political impetus behind the actions of the key state and commercial players in this situation, a few lessons for the entertainment segment have emerged from the ongoing crisis:

  • A political dispute has had a material negative impact on the entire pay-TV and premium sports ecosystem in the region. Audiences will have slightly less faith in legal services and slightly more in illegal services, which largely escaped the negative effects of the boycott. This is aside from the operational nightmare of ensuring that subscribers who have not been able to watch channels they paid for are adequately compensated and, in some cases, persuaded not to drop their subscriptions entirely.

  • Banning or constricting content distribution on a national, territorial basis in 2017 is practically futile. Audiences will still see what they want; they will just find a provider that isn’t banned – and there will always be many of them. Another side effect is that viewers are more likely to “discover” user-friendly pirate solutions once they are driven to look for them, increasing the chances that they will opt for such content over legal services.

  • There was a notable absence of support among regional TV sports audiences for their respective governments’ political stances, with few users willing to sacrifice their access to sports TV in the name of politics.

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