The Management Committee and plenum of the Israel Broadcasting Authority gave the green light on Sunday to a series of proposed reforms designed to take the IBA out of the economic, technological and administrative doldrums and sweep it onto the cutting edge of 21st century broadcasting.
The vote was nearly unanimous except for one abstention. Nonetheless, the reforms are on the way, IBA chairman Moshe Gavish told a news conference in the aftermath of a four-hour meeting of the IBA's two governing bodies.
The proposed reforms, which will take between two to three years to implement, were worked out over a three months period in conjunction with TASK, a strategic consulting firm.
Among the more significant recommendations are increasing the IBA licensing fee, reducing the number of employees by more than a third, digitizing the system, upgrading equipment, and total reorganization and rewriting of work agreements so that it will be impossible for people who are not genuinely working to be paid overtime for work they didn't do.
The reforms also call for the depoliticization of the Broadcasting Authority.
Gavish made the point that the damaging influence of affluence has already impacted on commercial television, where decisions about what to broadcast or what not to broadcast depend on the interests of the shareholders and heavy advertisers.
He did not want politicians to interfere with the IBA in a similar manner, he said.
Towards this end, the IBA Management Committee has urged the government to amend the Broadcasting Authority Law whereby appointments to the institutions of the IBA will be made by an appointments committee headed by a member of the judiciary. The committee will determine the criteria required for representatives of the public and will define the status and authority of the various bodies under the IBA umbrella.
The full list of recommendations is far more extensive, and the total cost of implementation is estimated to be around NIS 800 million.
Although this appears to be an enormous sum, said Gavish, it is preferable to the amount of money that the Finance Ministry would have to lay out if it continued to support the IBA for another five years. The estimated outlay would be in excess of a billion shekels, said Gavish.
The budgetary breakdown for the NIS 800,000 is NIS110,000 for digitization; NIS 90m. (the current equivalent of the IBA's deficit) for the upgrading of equipment; NIS 330m. as severance pay for the 700 out of 1,915 employees who will be let go, NIS 130m. for the building and development of a sophisticated Internet site and the legal expenses that this will entail; and NIS 140m. to cover the anticipated deficit that will accrue by the end of 2008.
When Gavish was invited to take over the chairmanship of the IBA in February of this year, he held intensive meetings with the prime minister, the minister charged with responsibility for the IBA, the finance minister, and the superintendent of budgets, and promised them all that within four months he would present them with a plan for reform.
The only problem, he observed, is that with the exception of the prime minister, none of the people he spoke to was still in office, and he has to start again from scratch to win support for the preservation and rehabilitation of the IBA.
Asked whether the current minister responsible for the IBA has seen the reforms, Gavish said that they had been presented to him, but pointed out that Isaac Herzog was appointed less than a week ago and has not yet had sufficient time to study and familiarize himself with the complexities of the IBA. However Gavish was confident that Herzog would endorse the plan.
The good news for all those who were afraid that English might disappear from IBA broadcasts is that "despite low ratings" they will not only not disappear, but will be expanded alongside Arabic broadcasts on Channel 33.
Gavish said that he was perfectly aware of the importance of English not only to the diplomatic community, but as a tool for getting Israel's message across to the world at large. As for Arabic, "we have neglected the Arab sector for too long" he said, and pledged that dramatic improvements would be made.
However he acknowledged that nothing could be done without the cooperation of the workers, the Histadrut and various government ministries, especially the Finance Ministry.
IBA director-general Moti Shklar said that public broadcasting should not have to compete with commercial channels in the types of programs that they provide, but should offer an alternative.
Competition is not what it used to be, he explained, because today, no one really needs radio or television if they have access to Internet.
One of the things he hopes to do is to make all of the IBA's radio and television programs accessible via the Internet. He also wants to merge the radio and television news divisions into a single unit "so that we can achieve synergy using the best talents and energies of both." Although the reforms propose that most productions be outsourced, Shklar was adamant that news and actuality must be in-house.
Gavish, conscious of that fact that over the past two decades or so there have been close to a dozen committees that have made recommendations for reforms that were accepted in principle and then stuck in a drawer forever, declared that this time the reforms would be put into practice.