'Mr. Television' spells out bad news for IBA employees

As one of the Israel Broadcasting Authority's most venerable employees, and a former head of Israel Television as well as its longest-lasting and best-known news presenter, Haim Yavin knows a thing or two about the inner workings of the IBA, where a budget deficit is threatening the elimination of most original programming, including everything produced in English. And perhaps because he's finally leaving Mabat, its flagship evenings news program, at the end of the summer, he allowed himself to display a lack of collegiality on Thursday when participating in a panel discussion on whether classic journalism is dead. Yavin and IBA Chairman Moshe Gavish, who also heads the University of Haifa's executive committee, were speaking in the framework of the annual meeting of the university's board of governors. "Moshe Gavish is not yet aware of this, but he'll have to fire a lot of people before he can produce good programs on Channel 1," said Yavin. One of the station's central problems, Yavin said, is that it was created in the wake of the victory in the Six Day War, and not because someone thought that Israel should have television. "After the war, the politicians wanted to show our Arab neighbors how happy we were here in Israel, and therefore they decided to establish a television channel. That's the reason that Israel Television was created, in haste and without much thought. "The channel was built backwards. First they constructed the roof, then the walls, and after that the foundations - and that is what continues to harm ITV until this day," he said. Through the years, he said, there were too many administrative problems, too many employees and too much politicization. "The first step that has to be taken is to decide whether a public channel is still needed. I'm not sure about the outcome of a debate on the subject, but I believe that there is a need." Yavin referred to the dire financial situation of Israel media outlets, specifically the electronic media, which are constantly embroiled in the ratings war. "There's no lack of information. Sometimes there's even too much information, but when entertainment parades as news, it does away with public discourse. I'm not saying that entertainment is a dirty word - and there's certainly no justification for television without entertainment - but the question is where to draw the line and what happens when everything becomes entertainment. The minute that money becomes a consideration, legitimate news disappears," he said. Yavin said that contrary to other markets, where competition improves the quality of the product, competition in the media is detrimental. "When there are 100 channels from which to choose," he said, "television becomes a Jacuzzi. A person comes home after a day's work and all he wants to do is relax in front of the television. He's not interested in what's happening in Darfur or in the territories." If Yavin was a bus commuter, the point would have been driven home to an even more convincing degree. There was a time when all conversation stopped on Israeli buses for the duration of the hourly radio news. Today, passengers talk through the news broadcasts, and if the jabber gets too loud and the bus driver turns up the volume so that he can hear the news, a passenger will often ask him to turn it down because it's disturbing his snooze or his conversation. Whether Yavin's remarks will have any effect on the IBA's decision-making process remains to be seen. Its management committee is scheduled to meet on Monday to discuss a cost-cutting plan prepared by the IBA administration in which most television and radio programs, including all news programs except those in Hebrew and Arabic would be taken off the air. In Israel's English-speaking community, large scale protests have been mounted, with immigrant organizations e-mailing instructions to members with the names, addresses and phone numbers of people in the corridors of power who should be receiving their letters of complaint. To encourage people to write such letters, the organizations have listed points that should be made so all that is left to the writers is to incorporate them in their own styles of writing. Almost every time the IBA has a financial crisis, the foreign-language programs become the sacrificial lamb, even though cutting them produces minimal savings after years of cutbacks.