In July, the Knesset ratified a radical reform of the Israel Broadcasting Authority backed by Communications Minister Gilad Erdan. Since then, a number of major changes have taken place.
The IBA went into receivership in preparation for massive layoffs and the sale of property. Yona Wiesenthal, former senior VP for content at Hot Satellite TV, was appointed acting director-general. Veteran TV and radio correspondent Ayala Hasson was appointed head of the news division. By March, the complete revamping of the IBA is supposed to be completed, though this deadline will probably be extended through September 2015. By then the workforce at the IBA is supposed to decrease from about 2,000 employees to just 800. The longstanding taxpayers’ burden of the annual TV and radio license fee will be abolished, and a brand new IBA with a new name will be launched.
As part of all these reforms, one major mistake is being made. Wiesenthal has made it clear to the IBA’s workers that he sees no future for foreign-language TV content.
That means the IBA’s daily English news program, if it continues to exist at all, will appear solely on the Internet. On September 1, the first step in the gradual eradication of English-language content will be taken with the removal of the 10-minute news bulletin that appears every day at 4:50 p.m. on Channel 1. In parallel, the English news slot on Channel 33 will be moved from 5 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Channel 33 will broadcast solely in Arabic from 4 p.m. to midnight. Eventually, it will be an Arabic-only channel.
We have in the past argued that a radical reform of the IBA is long overdue. For years, the IBA’s TV and radio operations have been held in limbo while negotiations have dragged on. Outdated equipment, an anachronistic business model, and workforce inconsistencies in which some departments of the IBA are bloated while others are hopelessly understaffed have all become almost synonymous with the organization. That’s why we agreed with Erdan that only by taking the radical step of closing down the IBA and starting over from scratch is there hope that one day Israel will be able to brag of its own version of the BBC.
However, doing away with English-language content is a very bad idea. If anything, Erdan, Wiesenthal, and others involved with IBA reforms should be looking for ways to improve the quality and exposure of its English-language content, particularly the news coverage.
First, IBA English news provides an important service to the many new immigrants, tourists, foreign workers, diplomats, and foreign press who do not speak Hebrew.
These people rely on the IBA for their daily information.
Diplomats are a particularly influential bunch. IBA news in English helps shape their outlook about Israel.
Second, original news production from Israel in English has a tremendous potential as a media product that can be sold to hundreds of TV channels in the US and other English-speaking countries. Presently, 125 TV stations in the US – mostly Jewish and Evangelical Christian – carry IBA news on a daily basis. This market can be expanded significantly, bringing revenues to the IBA’s successor.
Also, closing down the IBA English news – instead of investing more to improve coverage – means abandoning the theater in which the battle for Israel’s legitimacy is waged to other TV channels that are openly biased against Israel. The IBA’s English news coverage provides the broader context, the background information, and details that are so often missing from coverage on other news outlets. This is an invaluable asset that Israel should not give up. Closing down the IBA’s English news is tantamount to surrendering to Al-Jazeera.
The revamping of the IBA presents a tremendous opportunity to improve the standards of Israeli television, which tends to rely too heavily on reality and game shows. And Erdan will be providing a public service by raising the level and sophistication of TV broadcasts and tapping into a wellspring of Israeli creativity. But the IBA reform must not make the mistake of scrapping in the process an important element of public broadcasting – the IBA’s English news program.