Money for nothing

The powers that be must begin making massive changes in the way the government-run stations are managed.

IBA logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of IBA)
IBA logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of IBA)
In 2006, I came back to Israel after living in the US for over eight years. One of the first things I had to take care of was health insurance. Back then, there was a law stating that even a returning citizen (toshav chozer) was not entitled to coverage immediately. There was a waiting period based on the amount of time one had resided overseas. The bottom line was that I had to take out private insurance to ensure I would get proper medical treatment if needed.
A couple of months after my return, I found a job and started working. When I got my first paycheck, lo and behold, I saw a considerable deduction for “health tax”; the money government takes toward medical insurance. I took a trip down to Social Security (Bituah Leumi), the agency which collects the tax, to protest. The whole thing made no sense me.
I remember very distinctly the clerk telling me that the law is the law; there was no way for me to opt out of the non-coverage and I would have to pay the full amount for the duration of my waiting period. So basically for nine months I paid the State of Israel for a service I didn’t get. Talk about chutzpah.
So why am I mentioning this story in a column dedicated to media matters? Primarily because of the recent uproar and potential politicization of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and Israeli Educational Television (IETV), two channels which are funded, directly and indirectly, by taxpayers. We might pay for them, but they’re hardly utilized.
A quick recap on the recent developments: First of all, the Supreme Court threw out a petition from the Tel Aviv Journalists Association regarding the appointment of Yoni Ben-Menachem as the new head of the IBA. The IBA falls under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, which approved the selection. Turns out that three of the IBA committee members who recommended Ben-Menachem, including its chairman, all worked for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at one point.
The court said there was no evidence that there were any political machinations in Ben-Menachem’s appointment and that his experience at the channel makes him a qualified candidate.
Another key event took place late last week, when the Prime Minister’s Office was reported to be planning either the demise of IETV or to have it moved to be under the IBA. The appointment of IETV’s new director-general, Eldad Koblentz, has been waiting for weeks for a green light from the government. The channel is currently managed by the Education Ministry which budgets and pays its operating costs. MKs from both sides of the aisle, including Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, have blasted this proposal, calling it the death knell of the station.
The IBA gets direct funding from the taxpayers primarily by way of licensing fees paid every year by people who own TV sets & radios. Back in the 1980s, they put together a PR campaign anchored on the famous slogan loosely translated – “there is value for the licensing fee” – which has become commonplace in Israel. Anyone who watches television, however, knows that this has not been the case for a long time.
The IBA, which reportedly has a whopping NIS 800 million annual budget, has long since fallen out of favor with the Israeli public. When you combine Channel 1’s dismal ratings and the Likud’s so-called libertarian economic policies, one would think that it would be the IBA looking at the ax instead of IETV. Don’t get me wrong, IETV also suffers from the same lackluster ratings as IBA, but from the financial perspective, it’s a bargain. IETV’s annual budget is reportedly only about a tenth of IBA’s. The question is, why is it being targeted?
In any event, the time has come to put this status quo gradually to an end. Let’s start with the IBA. The powers that be must begin making massive changes in the way the government-run stations are managed. They should make bold programming decisions designed to draw in an audience, then wean the station off of public funding and start making headway into selling ad time just like everyone else. The government can pitch in by reducing IBA’s taxes for a certain period or even to make it mandatory for ministries to spend a certain percent of their advertising budgets at the IBA to make the transition easier. But the end result must be a unit which is independent of taxpayer funds.
As far as IETV is concerned, the same must apply, but only to a point. They must also find alternate revenue streams to supplement their budget, but if the idea of the channel is to contribute to education then it must prove that it is doing so to maintain a certain percentage of public funding.
In my last column, I wrote about the possible closure of Channel 10. I argued that it must be the market, especially creditors and the public, who decide if the channel as a viable business venture. Politicians should have very little say in the existence of a media outlet. There should be minimal government interference and standard financial burdens instead of exceptional ones.
If you want a recipe for trouble, mix media directly with politicians. In the case of IBA and IETV, I can’t say for sure that this is the case, but it sure looks like there are too many outside interests pulling strings in an arena they have no business being in. To add insult to injury, we the taxpayers are paying for all this mess and will likely to get nothing out of it. Talk about chutzpah.

The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York. [email protected]