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BBC Prime isn't the first channel which Israel's monopolistic cable-provider HOT has threatened to yank off its subscribers' screens. Neither is the nearly equally popular Star World the first channel that satellite-carrier YES has seemed adamant to drop.
Although cancellation dates for these channels have been fixed - February 1 for BBC Prime and January 15 for Star World - they may yet stay. The bitter rival local TV providers are constantly engaged in one-upmanship and brinkmanship. They often conduct their affairs like maverick wildcatters rather than the reliable service providers they claim to be and ought to be.
Without much shame, HOT has announced that its quarrel with BBC Prime is over the sum it must spend for the BBC's incontrovertibly top-notch blend of quality dramas, comedies, documentaries and lifestyle programming. BBC Prime is indeed Israel's most popular channel in the non-local category, not only among this country's native English-speakers.
HOT CEO David Kamenitz is on record as planning to cut his consortium's programming costs by a whopping 40 percent. There are no plans, however, to cut subscription charges proportionately. On the contrary, those fees keep creeping upwards, despite the shekel's ongoing strength.
In short, subscribers are asked to pay more for less. HOT has already axed Eurosport News, Adventure-1 and the Turner-owned TCM and Cartoon Channel to trim expenses.
Israel's entertainment cartels are plainly haggling for better deals in total disregard of their clientele. To bring down foreign broadcasters' prices, they threaten to pull their fare from the packages they have sold to viewers, and never mind the explicit understanding that these channels would be available for the foreseeable future.
The ultimate impudence was manifested by HOT just recently when it terminated Adventure I and screened an announcement challenging anyone dissatisfied with the move to cancel the entire package. In other words, it's HOT's way or nothing.
Disingenuously, HOT is promoting, by way of purported compensation, the availability of selected BBC productions via VOD (Video on Demand). But this, needless to say, requires extra payment per viewing, above and beyond what's already shelled out in subscription fees. HOT also claims its subscribers will be adequately compensated with an unidentified Chinese channel and channels from Georgia (the former Soviet republic) and Ethiopia.
It has indicated straight-facedly that these are the BBC's equals.
Israel's consumer-advocate organizations hotly disagree with HOT, as they should. The Israel Consumer Council considers "the dilution of the packages and cancellations of high-ratings channels as irremediable via inferior channels. The higher a channel's rating the greater its value," the ICC correctly maintains. "Furthermore, the deletion of popular offerings from the basic package obviously cannot be redressed by extra-payment arrangements." The Emun Hatzibur association argues, in a similar vein, that "subscription terms are breached when too little remains of what the basic package once contained, while the public is forced to pay exorbitantly for each new offering." The Communications Ministry's Council for Cable and Satellite Broadcasting (CCSB), whose approval for canceling channels is formally mandatory, is to take up the issue of the threatened cancellations this week.
CCSB Chairman Yoram Mokady has already as much as conceded that the public is being held hostage in both YES's and HOT's brinkmanship bargaining maneuvers. "The fact is that many nearly-canceled channels are still available," he has noted. "The Council, though," he goes on, "must not get involved in financial stand-offs between YES, HOT and foreign programmers." But that leaves the viewers as pawns, caught in the middle.
It's high time the CCSB took on the subscribers' cause and forced both HOT and YES to quit playing fast and loose with consumers.
The CCSB should protect the public by imposing substantial fee reductions commensurate with the worth of any channels removed. That would not only be fair but would introduce a painful punitive element for the service-providers to contemplate as they haggle over terms with foreign broadcasters.
The government supervisory agency's elementary duty is to lay down the law unequivocally, reining in the badly misbehaving rivals. In a marketplace where HOT and YES are the only players, and each is as cynical as the other, it's time for the CCSB to show its teeth.