Israel has a new regulatory council for the Second Authority for TV and Radio (SATR).
In one of his final acts as communications minister, Gilad Erdan appointed (a bit late) 15 new members, whose job is to regulate our rather sick commercial media. Sick, since it is always in financial arrears and usually does not provide the kind of quality programming which it committed itself to at the outset. Sick because it needs treatment.
Minister Erdan, for the first time ever, appointed more women (10) than men (five) to the council. Eva Medziboz, the new chairperson, would seem to be an ideal appointment.
Her resume includes high-level managerial positions in Radio Tel Aviv 102, the Keshet concessionaire of TV Channel 2, Ma’ariv and much more. She was also a member of public committees such as the one which dealt with implementation of the law concerning local programming on the commercial TV channels.
The new Board is also rather pluralistic in that it includes Suhair Nahhas, who studied mass communication at the Hebrew University, Abed Shafik, a Druse teacher, as well as Mare Maru-Senebato, of Ethiopian origin, who also served in the outgoing council. Of the 15 members, 10 are new, so there is still a reasonable measure of continuity between the outgoing and incoming boards.
But beyond the niceties, the challenges facing the new board are daunting, as noted by various pundits. Channel 10 is on the verge of bankruptcy. Erdan initiated a law which would separate the Reshet and Keshet concessionaires.
He also attempted to push forward legislation which would unify the SATR with the Cable and Satellite TV council. Will the new council manage to implement these? Truthfully, to our mind, these are small problems.
The true challenges are much more fundamental and revolutionary and all have to do with technology.
Let’s start with the regional radio. The SATR, until now, has successfully managed to keep its stranglehold on radio broadcasts in Israel, limiting them to the so-called regional radio stations. The SATR though has no influence on Internet radio, which is free of the heavy and inefficient bureaucracy of the SATR. This is going to change.
One of us listens at home to the radio only through the Internet and an Internet receiver.
This means that listening to Arutz 7, which was prevented by MK Cabel from broadcasting, is as easy as listening to Reshet Bet. Indeed, already today, one can do the same while driving. All one needs is the connection of a smartphone to the car speaker, and a radio app (usually free of charge) which enables one to listen to any radio station in the world.
In the past this would have been excessively expensive due to the high fees charged by the cellphone provider, but this has now radically changed. Most of us do not come even close to utilizing the many gigabytes provided to us monthly by our carrier. Moreover, the quality of Internet access is improving almost daily and the number of disconnects occurring on our cellular phones, even while driving, are going down.
All this implies that within a few years, no one in Israel will use the FM broadcasts anymore. Car “radios” will turn into Internet receivers. Anyone who operates an Internet radio station will immediately become a global broadcaster. The present structure will become outdated. No one in his right mind will pay the state for a radio concession as there will be no need for it. The SATR will be able to close down all its functions of oversight of local radio stations. Radio will become free for all, including the broadcasters.
Is this good? Mostly yes, for it will lead to increased pluralism – but it will also unleash ethics violations which will be difficult to prevent unless supervised in one way or another other. Of course, as true liberals, we want to limit regulatory practices, but at the same time, none of us would eat in a restaurant which is not supervised by the Health Ministry to assure quality sanitary conditions. A SATR Board whose central interest is to serve the public rather than itself would read the handwriting on the wall and take the necessary steps today needed to assure that the transition to the Internet radio broadcasting era is as smooth as possible.
The new leadership of the SATR could immediately initiate a legislative process which would impose on all car importers the requirement to install Internet-capable radios in the new cars they sell. This would give the Internet broadcasters a head start and a large audience.
At the same time, the SATR should take steps to assure that even on the Internet there is some regulation, preventing the Internet radio broadcasters in Israel from violating some of the most basic media ethical guidelines.
There are those who claim that there is no way to regulate the Internet, but we beg to disagree.
Even Internet radio broadcasters need a source of income, which invariably is advertising.
This is their Achilles heel. One may condition the license to advertise with acceptance of ethics oversight. A company advertising through a provider who does not accept the ethics oversight would then be liable for prosecution. One may well assume that most advertisers do not want a brush with the law.
Is the Internet revolution limited to radio? By no means. Already today, the big Internet sites offer online TV. There is, though, a difference. Quality TV broadcasting requires more extensive infrastructure. The purveyors are not there yet. The “fourth generation” cellular technology is not yet available to all, and is still quite expensive. But it is around the corner. Any executive today considering TV concessions which will last for 10 years should be summarily fired for lack of foresight and professional expertise. Within that period, TV programming will have changed qualitatively, becoming interactive, much cheaper and available to all without the draconian oversight of a body such as SATR.
A wise leader would consider all of this today and prepare the SATR for this future. Questions such as should Reshet and Keshet be split, or the measure of local programming to be imposed on a TV station, become anachronistic.
The present new council, which abounds with academics, supposedly trained to think out of the box, has the potential of being able to provide the necessary leadership. Will it?
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).