T-Minus (Channel) 10 and counting

Channel 10’s programming may leave something to be desired, but closing a major news outlet would be a terrible sign for the country.

By JEREMY RUDEN
November 13, 2011 22:54
Channel 10's Raviv Drucker.

Raviv Drucker 311 . (photo credit: Courtesy)

It seems to have become an annual tradition.

Every year the government goes to the management of Channel 10 demanding the station pay its debt to the country, which reportedly stands now at up to NIS 60 million, or risk closure.

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In the past the station has been granted a reprieve, but now it seems the channel’s time could be up after the Knesset’s Economics Committee rejected a proposal to give them another year to meet their financial obligations. It’s not clear yet if the station will manage to come up with the money or figure out a compromise with the government, but at this stage it doesn’t look good.

Since that decision, the battle for Channel 10’s survival has moved to other media outlets, with several reports discussing alleged political motivations for putting the squeeze on the station. The back and forth has reached the highest levels of government, with some articles claiming that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu either has no interest in keeping Channel 10 alive or specifically wants it closed for a variety of reasons. I won’t discuss specifics as some of the published claims are attributed to anonymous sources, or are simply hearsay.

Having said that, let me be clear that under the current circumstances, closing the channel would be disastrous not just for the TV industry in Israel but for the country as a whole and yes, the government would be to blame. Not just the current administration, mind you, but previous ones as well, and not necessarily due to the aforementioned politically motivated reasons.

But before I get into the subject, let me say that from a content perspective, I have mixed feelings about Channel 10. I have written on at least one occasion in this column that I am not a fan of prime time television in Israel, mainly because it relies too much on reality shows. I believe most of those programs appeal to the lowest common denominator.

This is not exclusive to Channel 10. Channel 2 is equally guilty.

On the other hand, I hold Channel 10’s news division in high regard. Their newscasts and investigative reporting are top notch. They also develop talent considerably younger and more TV-oriented than their competition. Correspondents such as Alon Ben-David, Raviv Druker, Shlomi Eldar, Nadav Eyal, Zvi Yehezkeli and others, present themselves in an assertive, even-handed manner, yet the viewer can relate to them.

BUT I digress. The issue at hand is not really about content but about the cockeyed system we have here in Israel with regard to certain aspects of the communication industry. It has to do with free press – both literally and figuratively.

Let’s start with the financial aspect. The money owed by Channel 10 is debt to the government.

We’re not talking about income or payroll taxes here, but license and royalty fees which were part of the original agreement the station made when it hit the airwaves nine years ago.

According to CEO Yossi Varshavsky, the channel has paid a whopping NIS 230 million in such fees since its inception. That’s a lot of money, especially for a media outlet in the 21st century when almost every newspaper, radio and TV station is searching for new revenue streams. If they can’t find some, they close down. To have the government demand huge sums of money from any business, with no regard for its financial status, is simply wrong.

It’s done in other sectors as well. Remember earlier this year when the government auctioned off the right to start a new cell phone network when the “winners” committed to paying an outrageous sum of over NIS 700 million in licensing fees? Our elected officials and their ministries seem to forget that they’re running a country and not a brokerage firm looking to make as much money as possible. The government allows itself to play these games with private enterprise and it’s time for it to end by making such fees nominal and minimizing regulation. Let the media outlet’s business model work itself out. If the company proves itself not to be solvent, its investors or creditors will demand it cease operations.

The political aspect is clearer cut. Let’s say for the sake of argument that claims of partisan motivation to have the channel closed are completely false. The fact of the matter is that they are conceivable. Among other things, news outlets report on questionable judgment and scandals among decision makers. Now those decision makers or members of their party/coalition are in the position to impede their operations or even close them down.

What’s wrong with this picture? In a democracy, such situations should never come about. The only exception to the rule would be if a media outlet crosses the line on certain democratic values such as inciting violence or constant censorship infractions.

Those arguing that Channel 10 should be closed because the company has failed to meet its financial obligations to the Israeli government are not seeing the bigger picture. It’s not as if the station is asking for a bailout or for its debt to be forgiven. It’s not as if the taxpayers need to provide money to keep the station afloat.

The channel is in overdraft, like most of the country, and it wants another extension. If the station shuts down, think of how much money the government will lose in taxes paid and unemployment benefits the country will be required to dole out. It will also be a major blow to the entire media industry which is already struggling . Channel 10 pumped tens of millions of shekels into the domestic production houses across the country.

Finally, there is the greater good. When a mainstream media outlet shuts its doors, it’s a loss to the country. At a time the government is looking to increase competitiveness in the economy, the last thing we need is less competition in news coverage.

If that happens, we’ll scare away any other entrepreneurs who might think of starting a TV or news station in Israel. Worse, we’ll lose a great deal of diversity of opinion and increase the risk of a TV news monopoly. That is something a democracy, especially Israel, can ill afford.

The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.


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