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It's sad to see any news outlet, print or electronic media, cease operating. Yet in these hard times more and more newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations are being forced to shut down. This shrinks the public's choice and limits exposure to alternative voices - assuming, of course, that those enterprises did in fact offer content unavailable elsewhere.
News that Israel's Channel 10, which can be viewed most easily on satellite or cable, may be going out of business is being portrayed as a grievous loss to democracy. That may be taking matters too far in describing what is a business failure. It seems aimed at extracting additional financial backing from overstrained taxpayers.
But that's the tack being taken by both Channel 10's franchise-holders and its understandably anxious employees, even if their official line is that they are not asking for actual cash outlays.
All they're ostensibly seeking is a drastic reduction of fees and changes in contractual terms, which amount to the same thing - massive write-offs charged to the public coffers.
The channel's looming demise is being unabashedly presented as a civic and cultural calamity that must be averted for the public's good - even if it's at the public's expense. Yet, undesirable as Channel 10's demise would be, it is not a national calamity.
Channel 10, chartered by the Second Authority for Television and Radio and launched in January 2002, is a commercial venture. Its news division has steadily entrenched itself and secured an audience. Its entertainment division, though, frequently seeks the lowest common denominator - like its main competitor, Channel 2. Channel 10's fare has lately been led by shallow imitations of lowbrow foreign hits like Survivor, Beauty and the Geek, America's Next Top Model, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Jeopardy.
The channel's majority shareholders, who have thus far kept it going, have announced that as of August, they will discontinue funneling more funds into what has become a bottomless pit. They say the only thing that would change their position is Channel 10's being granted independent licensee, rather than franchisee status. That would save them periodic fees which, they assert, they cannot afford. They also want the government to forgive a NIS 330 million debt. Meanwhile, Bank Leumi is cutting the station some slack on a NIS 150 million debt.
The communications minister has expressed support for the struggling channel, describing it as "a great national asset." The finance minister is being involved as well. Perhaps warnings that Channel 10 will close are partly aimed at getting the NIS 50 million franchise renewal fee waived.
CHANNEL 10 isn't Israeli television's sole basket case. Even ratings-grabber Channel 2 isn't doing all that well, while the state-owned Israel Broadcasting Authority's Channel 1 constantly struggles for cash.
All the stations are strangled by red tape and over-regulation. All are administered by cumbersome bureaucracies and badly run. All could doubtless improve their financial health if freed from regulation. But at what cost to the viewers?
Both commercial channels are notorious for crassness, sensationalism and a penchant for titillation. Both offer offensive content during prime time, when families may be watching together.
Channel 1, less prone to titillate, fails to generate mega-ratings. But if any channel deserves taxpayer bolstering, Channel 1 is our preference. There is sense in investing in civic-minded public broadcasting as an alternative to the mostly tasteless and tacky commercial stations.
Yet even Channel 1, which is partly subsidized by a television tax, needn't depend exclusively on state handouts. There is no reason why it should not greatly expand the advertising it currently allows while avoiding the vulgarity sometimes seen on its commercial competitors. The station might take a page from the America's Public Broadcasting System, which permits tasteful, palatable, commercial and private sponsorship of programming.
Television-watching Israelis have never had more channels to choose from - yet many of us are left feeling that the pickings are slim. We wish Channel 10 well, knowing that market rules will determine its fate. The public interest, however, is best served by spending on Channel 1, and by insisting that the bar for the quality of its programming be set high.