Media Comment: Who needs TV local news?

The local news networks have not created an important alternative, nor have they come up with terribly important scoops which then reached the national networks.

TV 311 (photo credit: Hemera)
TV 311
(photo credit: Hemera)
In the beginning, there was only one government radio station operating in Israel. The government decided that this was “good” and so it created in 1965 a national TV station, operating under the auspices of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Israel prides itself in its modernity and progress-oriented policies and indeed, it took a mere 17 years for the cable TV era to reach us.
In 1986, the government passed the “Bezeq Law” which is the basis for the regulation of cable and satellite TV broadcasting. Having had 20 years’ experience, the legislators realized that the IBA national TV station was not that interested in local news. In their wisdom, they decided that any broadcasting company wanting to supply the public with cable TV services must also commit itself to creating and broadcasting local programming at its own expense. The local news network was born.
The law was further refined in 1996 and the cable television suppliers were now told to “broadcast news and programs dealing with present-day issues in their local region only.” The law was enacted for a fixed period of time – 10 years.
The 10 years passed quickly, and naturally, cable TV suppliers did not intend to continue to foot the bill. They threatened closure. Our sensitive legislators, whose livelihood depends on their media image and thus almost always cave in to financial demands coming from media organs, decided to change the rules of the game. From now on, as an emergency measure, they decided that the licensee is permitted to deduct up to NIS 25.5 million annually in lieu of their expenses. The local news broadcasts were saved.
Is this important? The Knesset certainly thought so. The official justification for passing the law as it appears in the Knesset annals was, among other things: “Local news broadcasting is an important facility for bringing to the public local events and news items from the different regional areas of the country, including the peripheral regions. Such events do not receive coverage in the national news and so reach the public only through the local programming.
The law gives an answer to a pressing social need.”
A year passed, and again and yet again, the Knesset repeatedly re-legislated this emergency measure for terms of a year or even longer. The next-to-last temporary measure took place in 2011, allowing the law to be in force until December 31, 2012.
As it so happens, Israel prides itself in being an advanced democracy which safeguards equal rights for all, especially when it comes to public funding, and one could expect that the company given the right to produce the local broadcast would get it through an open public tender. This way, any company could compete. The competition presumably would lower the cost to the taxpayer and increase the quality and everyone would be happy.
But things don’t work this way. On April 4, 2010, the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting (CCTSB) agreed that the local news would be created by the privately owned “Koda Communication” company.
The mandate of the CCTSB, as described on its website, is “to represent, protect and promote the public interests in the field of cable and satellite multi-channel subscriber television.”
Is this the way the public interest was protected? By giving away the local broadcasting rights, without any tender? Does this remind us of the accusations against the robber barons in Israel? You bet it does.
Could the CCTSB defend itself by claiming that no one else was interested in taking on this job? On July 18, 2012, the company running the “Radio Kol Rega” northern regional radio station that was interested in competing for the right to broadcast the local news received a letter from Mr.
Avi Licht, the deputy attorney-general, notifying the company that indeed, the issue should be resolved via a public tender. The company, on July 22, promptly petitioned the communications minister to hold a public tender for the local news programming.
Another letter on July 31 and a further request on September 27 led nowhere. The minister’s phone was perhaps out of order.
The temporary local broadcasting law was about to end on December 31, 2012, just before national elections; not a time to quibble with trifling matters such as tenders. With the employees of Koda Communication threatened with layoffs, our heroic Knesset Members decided to save them and provide Koda Communication with an additional lifeline, lasting until July 31, 2013.
But time inexorably moves only forward, and July 31 is already behind us. Radio Kol Rega as well as Israel’s Media Watch petitioned the communications minister on July 15, demanding a public tender and cessation of the continuous “temporary” measure unfairly maintaining Koda Communication at taxpayers’ expense. Finally, the minister’s legal adviser answered: “Since the law was to end on July 31 there wasn’t sufficient time to hold a public tender. However, the ministry does believe that it would be right that any further continuation of the present situation would be followed with a public tender.”
The bottom line is that the Knesset again passed a temporary law, forcing the public to pay for the local TV news, this time for only five months, until December 31, 2013. Radio Kol Rega and Israel’s Media Watch have petitioned the High Court of Justice, which in its wisdom, permitted Radio Kol Rega, the Knesset and the Communications Ministry an extension until October 3 to present their answer.
Does all of this sound like a soap opera? Yes.
Indeed, in this day and age, is there any need for local news broadcasting funded from our own pocketbooks? Ynet, for example, has a Mynet website which deals with local news.
Is the public really interested in the local news broadcasting? The ratings are a jealously kept professional secret, but judging from what we know and hear, they are negligible. The local news networks have not created an important alternative, nor have they come up with terribly important scoops which then reached the national networks.
Their scope is also rather limited. There are only three editions, dealing with the Kiryat Shmona, Beersheba and Tel Aviv local regions (Tel Aviv is apparently considered the periphery). No one knows how much Koda Communication profits from the public coffers. Indeed, in a country which proudly possesses a plethora of public broadcasters – the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Educational TV, the army radio station Galatz, the second authority news programming – one can only wonder why additional funding should go for something that no one really needs. Wouldn’t it be better to give the same funds to Galatz so that it could eliminate all advertising and provide the public with some quality local news instead? Will media justice be done?
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (