Once upon a time, not too long ago, there was only one television channel in Israel. Channel 2 didn’t come along until the late 1980s/early 1990s, and Channel 10 and the cable networks were established well after that. Back in the mid- 1980s, the only alternatives were Jordan TV, which often showed movies and could be picked up by most viewers in the Jerusalem area, and stations from Lebanon and Egypt in the North and South. But the dozens of channels, watch-when-you-feellike- it entertainment universe of today wasn’t even a dream back then. While I’m not entertaining any false nostalgia for the program offerings of Channel 1 in the 1980s, if it was boring at times (and it often was), at least we were all bored together.

When foreign television series came here, at first it generated great excitement. I remember in 1984 that movies in Jerusalem were half price on Sunday nights because that’s when Dallas was broadcast on Channel 1, and movie admissions had dropped to almost nothing on that evening.

Given the incentive, I went to see films, but there was something fun in the fact that the television programming gave everyone something to talk about together.

Waiting in line at a grocery store on a Monday years ago, I heard one woman say she hadn’t seen the end of last night’s Dallas episode, and everyone else in line was happy to fill her in.

Israelis today may watch the same series, but who knows when? We all have very personal ways of watching series, based on our schedules, how tech savvy we are and which (if any) cable network we subscribe to. The one exception to this rule is the competition shows. Even with those, some people choose to catch up with them at their own pace, but it’s hard to avoid finding out what’s happened, so most people who are interested tune in when the shows are aired. And that’s why these shows get the highest ratings of any shows in Israeli television history.

But more important than the ratings, which make the networks happy, is the fact that these shows give the Israeli television watching public a shared experience. And the shows, which naturally court popularity, also mirror what’s going on in Israeli society.

This was never more true than on Master Chef, which just started its fourth season on Channel 2 and is broadcast on Wednesday and Saturday nights at 9 p.m. (full episodes can be seen later on Mako.co.il ). Its third season finale, which aired a year ago, was the highest rated episode in Israeli history, and it’s easy to see why: The finalists were Tom Franz, a German convert to Judaism, who won; Salmy Fiomy-Farij, an Arab-Israeli neuroscientist who wears a hijab; and Jacki Azulay, an ultra- Orthodox Jew. Obviously, the three are great cooks, but they also spotlight the tolerant side of day-to-day life in Israel, and Israeli audiences clearly enjoy seeing the country portrayed on television this way.

The fourth season also features an interesting mix of contestants, although it remains to be seen whether the most diverse will cook their way into the finals. Among this year’s crop are Marcette Valdmichal, a young mother who is of Ethiopian descent; Larry Sussman, a South African who dreams of cooking for Paul Newman; two kibbutzniks, Lior and Ethan Solomon; and Nof Atmana Ismail, an Israeli Arab from Baqa al-Garbiyya who has a doctorate in biology and is the mother of three.

The music competition shows have featured contestants who are similarly diverse, and it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Rose Fostanes, a Filipino caregiver, won The X Factor earlier this month, singing, among other tunes, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

Showcasing the disconnect between how many (perhaps most?) Israelis feel about the strangers in our midst and government policy, Israeli immigration officials announced following her win that her visa was not in order and she would not be permitted to perform for money. In a rare and welcome sign of sanity, Interior Minister Gidon Sa’ar announced last week that he would issue a visa allowing her to perform professionally. It’s a strange world where TV performance competitions are pushing government policy, but that’s the reality here.


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