Media Matters: Is the IBA worth saving?

Instead of trying to compete with private broadcasters, the IBA needs to do exactly what it is meant to do – broadcast for the public.

IBA 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IBA 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Does anybody watch public broadcasting anymore? In the age of high-definition television and digital recording, the often less than stellar, even archaic, quality of public television broadcasts just does not seem to fit. Israel’s Broadcasting Authority has been learning this the hard way, and after years of struggling with tanking viewership and a lack of leadership, it seems to have reached a do-or-die situation.
The Israel Broadcasting Authority operates four television channels, with broadcasts in Hebrew, Arabic and English, as well as several radio stations which broadcast internationally in 14 languages. As the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continues to emphasize that public diplomacy and good hasbara are the nation’s top priority, the value of the Israel Broadcasting Authority should seem obvious.
This is unfortunately not the case.
The IBA has for decades has been managed by political appointees with little or no professional media experience. I’m no Ted Turner, but I can say quite confidently that handing over four television stations and eight radio stations should be done with very careful consideration and should not be given to someone with less than extensive media and business expertise.
The evidence is in the programming. Technologically speaking, watching some of these broadcasts is like watching those cheaply made commercials for a local family-owned furniture store that only come on after 10 p.m. The graphics are cheesy, the video quality is grainy, the sound is off, and even the people don’t look like they belong in this decade. It looks and feels unprofessional, and it is simply unpleasant to watch.
Public broadcasting tends to be that way. Without the revenue from advertising, public television will never match the glitz and glam of ad-based programming.
SO WHO is currently in charge of the IBA, and why can’t we just get rid of them and find someone new? As it turns out, the Israel Broadcasting Authority has not had a proper director for television, television content or television news in over eight months. Instead, a number of “acting directors” have attempted, and clearly failed, to manage the IBA. Furthermore, Yuli Edelstein – the minister who up until a few days ago was responsible for overseeing the IBA – had refused to forward a proposed an amendment to the IBA Law, which would have taken control over appointments of the director general and the chairman of the board out of the government’s hands.
So can the IBA be saved? More importantly, is it even worth saving? The answer is yes. It absolutely is worth saving. Public broadcasting, in any country, is one of the greatest vehicles for preserving local culture. Sure, Israel’s satellite and cable television providers, Yes and Hot, offer some original Israeli programming, but global entertainment media is dominated by the United States and Europe, and the handful of Israeli programs which exist have – for the most part – modeled themselves after Hollywood-style production.
Public television is more than a novelty, it’s one of the truest expressions of history and culture, and it can explore issues in a more in-depth and complex manner than commercial media can.
However, in Israel, the IBA has failed to demonstrate that ability, and that’s where it needs to refocus its attention. Instead of trying to get up to speed and compete with private broadcasters, the IBA needs to do exactly what it is meant to do – broadcast for the public.
Israelis pay for the IBA, whether they watch it or not. A full 85% of the IBA’s budget is based on a licensing fee paid by the public anytime they purchase a television or radio. Without even realizing it, Israelis are essentially stock-holders of the IBA, only they aren’t given the supervision or representative control a stock-holder in a company is entitled to. It is therefore up to the public to demand reform within the IBA.
Much of what the IBA has to offer is irreplaceable. For Americansliving in Israel, specifically, it is difficult to imagine thedisappearance of its English-language news service. The tragedy of theIBA is that for all its potential it has been held back by incompetentmanagement, political intervention, and an overall poor organizationalstructure. Public broadcasting is useless unless it provides the publicwith something truly different and valuable – something they can’t getfrom commercial media.
With no current management and no leadership, the responsibility forthe Israel Broadcast Authority’s magnificent rebound or tragic demisenow lies in the hands of Netanyahu. It is up to him to break thepattern of appointing incompetent leadership and let the IBA evolve tobetter suit the public’s interests and expectations.