Communications Minister Gilad Erdan is calling for a major revamping of our public broadcasting network, the Israel Broadcasting Authority. A committee headed by veteran media man Ram Landes has produced a report calling for far-reaching reforms.
About 1,000 layoffs, the creation of a new governing body to replace the IBA, a new wage scheme, a decrease in political influence on appointments (both the chairman and the director-general of the IBA are picked by politicians) and the merging of radio and TV news media are just few of the proposed changes.
The Landes Committee’s recommendations are not new. Over the past few decades more than a dozen different reforms strikingly similar – if not identical – to the ones being made by the Landes Committee have been proposed by various committees and external advisers. But this time the long-awaited changes in our public broadcasting might actually be implemented, not just discussed and ultimately trashed.
Erdan has the backing of Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
And Erdan has said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu backs him as well. Admittedly, Erdan seems to be driven by populist motives. Keenly aware of the tremendous popularity enjoyed by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who managed to significantly lower cellular phone bills by introducing competition, Erdan seems to see the reform of the IBA as a way of gaining popularity. He has already gotten the public’s attention by announcing he will be doing away with the unpopular television and radio licensing fee starting in 2015.
Regardless of Erdan’s personal motives, however, a massive 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 Outdated equipment, an anachronistic business model, and workforce inconsistencies – in which some departments of the IBA are bloated while others are hopelessly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 IBA. That’s why we agree 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.
That is not to say that there are no highly talented people working at the IBA. Instead of fighting the reforms, the IBA’s employees should be negotiating with Erdan and Lapid to ensure that these talents are rehired after the revamping process is completed.
The timing is ripe for a radical rethinking of the mission of public broadcasting in the Jewish state of the 21st century.
Prominent figures in Israel media such as Uri Shinar, former CEO and president of Keshet broadcasting company and Guy Rolnik, founding editor of The Marker, have called on Erdan to seize the opportunity and create a dynamic, creative, intelligent public TV station. Little if anything needs to be done to improve the already excellent public radio, especially Reshet B.
In Israel, big business interests are hopelessly intertwined with both TV and print journalism. There is a real need for a truly objective, hard-hitting TV news that can serve the role of watchdog without fear or intimidation.
A high-quality public broadcaster could also devote more resources to programming that educates, stimulates, and promotes values central to the State of Israel.
A totally revamped IBA would also be able to tap into the tremendous reservoirs of talented directors, screenwriters, documentary film makers, and photographers who have received international recognition.
And by providing a platform for less commercially viable content, such as public affairs shows, television documentaries, and educational programs, a new and improved IBA could raise the standards of commercial Israeli television, which relies too much on reality TV and game shows for its revenues and produces documentaries and original dramas only because the regulator forces it to.
Erdan has the opportunity to raise the level and sophistication of public discourse, to provide an outlet for a wellspring of Israeli creativity, and to provide a truly objective news media. If he grabs this opportunity, the Israeli public will be forever grateful. If he does not, the IBA will most likely end up dying a slow and painful death and an incredible opportunity will be lost.