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Dozens of reporters, commentators, photographers, soundmen, technicians and a convoy of satellite vans descended on Beit Berl, near Kfar Saba, at the close of voting in the Labor primaries on Tuesday night. For hours, they had nothing to do.
None of the contestants arrived during the night, leaving a row of broadcasters standing at the ready, in suits and layers of makeup, reporting every 15 minutes: "Here at Labor headquarters people are anxiously awaiting results."
"We haven't got anything to say," admitted one media veteran of seven election campaigns. "We're just passing time and filling airtime. We have to be here because of the competition with the other networks, but in my opinion, we're only damaging ourselves with these empty broadcasts. Viewers will simply lose interest in politics."
The first to leave were the print journalists, after their last editions went to press and they had nothing else to update. Then, after a final empty report to the late-night news shows, the TV crews began packing up their equipment. Only the radio and Internet reporters remained to keep the fire burning.
Just before 1 a.m., while driving on the Geha Highway, I heard reports on results from the first six polling stations (out of more than 300). So what if it was only two percent of the total vote? After hours of boredom, Israel Radio's political commentator, Hanan Kristal, began analyzing and drawing conclusions. Who was listening to him at that hour? Did anyone really stay awake all night just to hear how high up Fuad Ben-Eliezer was on the list? Even the candidates themselves had gone to sleep, after spending the previous night on the phone to party members and loyalists.
But Army Radio and Israel Radio stayed on the air to carry on bringing the word from Beit Berl, out of fear that the competition would beat them. It wasn't just two miserable reporters trying to stay awake. Scores of technicians, drivers and studio crews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the musical producer - who was doing the only useful work by playing golden oldies - had to stay awake with them.
And we can't even blame poor Labor Party organization. The party's spokespeople told us in advance that there wouldn't be any results before midnight. But that didn't prevent Channel 10 News from sending no fewer than six reporters, all on the slim chance that they might spot something that was hidden from the eyes of the Channel 2 enemy. If I were of a suspicious mind, I might have begun accusing Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, the only senior figure on the scene (unlike his colleagues, he had a guaranteed spot on the list), of planning it this way on purpose so that he would be the only one to be interviewed by the reporters.
The absurdity of this kind of coverage is that it doesn't answer any real need. The Israeli viewer loves politics, but all the rating charts prove that he (it is usually a he) prefers to take his poison in the compressed and attractively packaged Channel 2 News at eight p.m.
If viewers really had an appetite for hours of reportage from party conventions, the Knesset Channel would be taking off. Insomniacs are much more interested in reruns of Sex and the City and NBA games. The TV and radio channels are filling a vacuum of their own making. The addiction to special broadcasts began with the first rash of suicide bombings, when the networks raced each other to be the first with live footage from the scene. But that was totally justified. Over the past couple of months, we've had way too many "specials," with every press conference held by another politician joining Kadima broadcast live.
SINCE ISRAEL has no 24-hour news channel, every time something happens during the day, regular viewing schedules are disrupted. This is warranted when - as yesterday - there is a terror attack. But what's so urgent about Shaul Mofaz, Shimon Peres or Avi Dichter's carefully rehearsed announcements that can't wait to be seen on the regular news shows?
It's only the balance of fear between the networks that doesn't allow one of them to give it a miss.
The most poignant example, of course, has been the coverage of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hospitalization. The first two days - between the stroke on Wednesday night and the weekend - were a national emergency, and there was every reason to keep studios open for the public hungry for any new information. But after 48 hours, when it became clear that we were in for a long ordeal, with few and far-between breakthroughs, the return to regular broadcasts should have been much swifter.
The repetitious and prolonged coverage became farcical, especially when there was nothing to do but put additional doctor-commentators - who hadn't a clue about the PM's real condition - on the air. There was nothing new that couldn't have been said from the studio, but all channels continued to keep their reporters in the Hadassah courtyard, for fear of missing a dramatic announcement. The media encampment outside the hospital was built solely on this fear - and this week's boredom there took its toll when a tent belonging to the French networks caught fire from a heater and burned to the ground.
It's hard to decide whether the rash of pointless live broadcasts and special bulletins, aside from being a waste of resources (and in the case of Channel 1, Israel Radio and Army Radio, also of tax-payers' money), have done any harm to the way viewers perceive politics. In any case, it's hard to see how the public's appreciation of politicians can sink any lower.
News addicts will continue taking their daily and hourly fixes - and it doesn't seem that political commentators will need to look for new jobs just yet. But, if party leaders and news executives want a wider audience to take an interest in politics - which, in a democracy, they should - then it's time to come up with a new concept in order to make these broadcasts worth viewing.
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