The annual licensing fee has been commandeered to pad the state budget.
Fees are paid for specific services or privileges. That's what distinguishes them from taxes, which can be general levies on income or property to raise nonspecific revenue for the funding of any variety of government expenditures.Thus when we pay our annual television licensing fee - whatever we may think of it - we assume the revenue is earmarked to prop up the Israel Broadcasting Authority, our public broadcasting network. This is supposed to be the sole justification for the NIS390 fee slapped per annum on each household.It now transpires, however, that at least part of what we considered a fee, collected for a particular purpose, has been commandeered to pad the state budget, without any linkage to public broadcasting.This is what 420,000 senior-citizen households throughout the country are being told these days. For the past three years they had been entirely exempt from the TV license fee. But this year the waiver has been rescinded and replaced with a bill for a tenth of the full fee. The sum involved, NIS39, is marginal. The principle is not.The pretext to resume charging the elderly for TV licenses, even if to a very limited extent, is the need to cover the cost of the H1N1 vaccines. This, of course, begs the question of what one thing has to do with the other.TV license fees shouldn't be appropriated for vaccines, defense installations, highway construction, sewage treatment or any other cause, however worthy or urgent. Otherwise, we are on the road to seeing our National Insurance payments diverted, say, for the construction of power plants.Truthfulness and transparency are key here.The government does need to pay for the vaccines, but it is disingenuous to crow about lowering taxes while slapping on new fees, even if minimal ones. Money for unexpected government outlays ought to be raised through the general tax system, which is progressive. An across-the-board levy on what is largely a low-income sector is regressive.THE ABUSE of the TV license money only compounds existing reservations regarding the fee - which is essentially a compulsory public subscription charge that today, more than ever previously, is an unjustified anachronism at best.Its preposterousness is underscored by cyberspace technology that changes things so rapidly that even cable and satellite services might soon become irrelevant relics of the past. Internet-based TV, no longer the sole preserve of computer aces, will soon be making its debut in Israeli homes.The breakthrough is about to be made by a company downloading 65 channels to our TV screens via converters at half the price charged by HOT and YES. The first venture is being aimed at Russian-speakers, but other target audiences are slated to soon benefit as well. The cable and satellite cartels are fighting an uphill battle, quite possibly a losing one.Logically, their awareness of what's in the immediate offing should induce HOT and YES to enhance their attractiveness and competitiveness. Instead, we are incongruously witnessing the reverse. Nitzan Chen, chairman of the Council for Cable and Satellite Broadcasting, recently opined at the Knesset Economics Committee that both service-providers "just don't give a hoot about their subscribers."Cable and satellite subscription packages are continuously being trimmed arbitrarily, with no fair equivalents offered. Cost-cutting seems to be the providers' paramount objective. The Hallmark left Israel last month, for instance, but viewers weren't compensated with corresponding alternatives in their subscription package.The addition of a new sports channel HOT boasts about is meaningless to viewers who are looking for family-oriented entertainment. The same goes for vulgar Israeli-produced reality shows. Foreign-language channels like France2 have disappeared from HOT packages that previously featured them and now require extra payment. So do all new channels. Two HOT channels were merged without warning. Soaps, popular in Israel for years, are suddenly cut from the menu. They may not be everyone's favorite, but there are plenty of viewers for whom they are. Subscribers of all tastes deserve consideration. They are all paying customers.Comeuppance may well be just around the cyber-corner for indifferent service-providers, but in the meanwhile consumers should exercise their power and not accept less-fare-for-more-money as force majeure. Remember, only a vociferous public outcry once prevented BBC Prime from being cancelled by HOT.
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