Media Comment: Don’t artificially resuscitate Ch. 10

The Peled Commission recommended that Israel should aim toward an “open skies” policy enabling almost anyone to broadcast.

Channel 10 logo_311 (photo credit:  Courtesy)
Channel 10 logo_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fifteen years ago, one of us was a member of the Peled Commission, whose task was to map out a vision for Israel’s media in the 21st century. The committee unanimously recommended that Israel should aim toward an “open skies” policy that would enable almost anyone who so desires to broadcast, whether on TV or on radio.
Due to technological band limitations at the time, it was apparent that it would be some time before this policy could be fully implemented. Therefore, one of the specific recommendations was to add, in the interim period, at least one additional terrestrial channel. These recommendations were fully adopted by the first Netanyahu government and ultimately led to the birth of Channel 10 TV. The channel began broadcasting on January 28, 2002.
At the outset, Channel 10 had an enormous advantage over its main competitor, Channel 2. Whereas the latter was shared throughout the week between three concessionaires (Keshet, Reshet and Telad), Channel 10 was allowed to broadcast seven days a week. On the other hand, it was also disadvantaged by the fact that Channel 2 was broadcasting terrestrially so that anyone with a TV could receive it, while Channel 10 was initially limited to broadcasting only via cable TV. However, this was not really a serious impediment as the vast majority of Israelis at the time were connected via cable.
From the outset, Channel 10 started on the left foot. Its programming schedule was criticized as simply emulating Channel 2. In contrast to its competitors, its initial investment costs included astronomical salaries to attract TV personalities such as Ya’akov Eilon. In fact, at present, even after a 25-percent reduction in 2008, the London et Kirschenbaum program reportedly costs the channel NIS 140,000 per month just to pay the salaries of the two “stars.” It is interesting to note that from the outset, Moti Kirschenbaum was one of the directors of the Eden Broadcasting company that formed Channel 10 at the time. Channel 10’s salaries forced other vendors, including the Israel Broadcasting Authority, to do the same. It goes without saying that these high IBA salaries are footed by the tax-paying public.
Making ends meet requires income from advertising. Since Channel 10’s ratings were half those of Channel 2 even at the best of times, the advertising income was insufficient. The channel started cutting corners and the first sacrifice was quality Israeli programming, in violation of the commitments that had been made when obtaining the concession. Things went from bad to worse. Enabling Channel 10 to compete on even footing with Channel 2 by allowing it to broadcast terrestrially through the Idan Plus digital system from 2008 onwards did not create the necessary change in balance. Starting from 2009, the channel was under constant threat of closure, due to the large financial deficits.
Israel’s Media Watch repeatedly suggested closing the channel at the time, to allow other players to enter the field and do a better job in administration as well as in programming. The Knesset Economics Committee threatened to close it down in 2010. However, due to public pressure, mostly by the Israeli media, which claimed that closure would harm Israel’s democracy and its free press, the committee backtracked, giving the channel a further lifeline until 2012. Now that 2012 is here, the channel is still insolvent and is again using the threat of closure and the firing of hundreds of employees to convince the government to provide a further delay in the date for paying the fees.
But something has changed. Even Channel 10’s fiercest competitor, the Channel 2 concessionaires Reshet and Keshet, are supporting Channel 10 and demanding that the government further delay its payments for at least a year. Are they being altruistic? Is the democratic need for a pluralistic media really behind their motives? Do they really want a competitor? Is the media’s portrayal of the closure of the channel as a kiss of death to Israel’s TV pluralism to be taken at face value? Of course not. The true story is somewhat different. The law was changed in 2010. Broadcasting licenses are to replace broadcasting concessions. The difference in principle could be huge. Concessions, by their nature, limit the number of participants, whereas licenses may be issued to anyone who can fulfill the licensing conditions.
Unfortunately, these conditions are still draconian, imposing content and financing burdens that are rather difficult to fulfill.
The Second Authority for TV and Radio (SATR) was one of the major players in this change. It played a self-serving role and is one of the main reasons why the licensing conditions are so forbidding. It wanted to assure its own status and power in controlling the various stations.
The shift to licensing is, though, a step in the right direction. The SATR called upon the public to submit requests for licenses by January 1, 2012, that would then be granted from January 1, 2013. The big surprise – Keshet of Channel 2 and Channel 10 were the only ones to participate.
There is a small problem, though; to get a license one needs a clean bill of health and the licensee must show that it has fulfilled its commitments in the past.
This brings us to the present.
Channel 10 wants a license but is in arrears in payments to the state and is asking for more time to pay. At the same time, the Channel 2 concessionaires, perhaps justifiably, claim that if Channel 10’s debts are given a reprieve then they should not be forced to pay on time either. If these demands are accepted then we will have groups asking for licenses and unable to get them, since neither one has fulfilled its obligations. Necessarily, both would then continue broadcasting as concessions at least for another year past January 1, 2013.
Things couldn’t be better for them. The licensing law aiming to drum up more competition would die a natural death. No licenses could be issued and the two concessionaires would continue dominating the airwaves with their rather cheap and sometimes downright unethical programming.
Caring for the public, for pluralistic culture and democracy, is probably the last thing on their minds.
This, then, is the background. The SATR’s mandate is to increase pluralism, so it is trying to force Channel 10 to either keep its commitments (the owners would need to cough up the money) or close.
Channel 2 would be given a license starting January 1, and the SATR would hope that others would join in the near future.
But all of this is wishful thinking. As long as the SATR’s rules for obtaining licenses are so forbidding, no one in his right mind would shell out more money on a TV license. SATR should be the first one to learn from this fiasco: that its rules, meant to perpetuate the SATR’s bureaucratic stranglehold on the TV station, must be changed.
Obtaining a TV license should be made simple. At the same time, Channel 10 should not be artificially resuscitated. It has done enough damage to the idea that more TV stations would provide more plurality to Israel’s media. True broadcasting pluralism may be found today in the Internet, where there are no regulations at all. This will ultimately be the case, but if the government gives in to the false media outcry again and gives Channel 10 another reprieve, it is the public that will continue paying for the excesses.
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch