Reflections on Israeli TV

The abundance of news programs fuels the ratings for reality shows in this country.

Big Brother 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Big Brother 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The other day, I sat down to watch one of the last episodes of Law and Order – the watershed police/courtroom drama recently cancelled by NBC after 20 years on the air. Channel 1 has the show on an irregular basis, and is now broadcasting the final season. The particular episode I watched dealt with one of the hot-button topics in the US: late-term abortions.
It was one of the best-written TV shows I’ve seen in a long time. It managed to accomplish something very difficult – coherently and effectively raise both sides of an issue in an emotional manner, without passing judgment on either side. It makes for powerful television.
The Law and Order franchise is part of a long tradition on American television. Dramas about the country’s public institutions have been a hallmark of network and cable programming for decades. Off the top of my head, I think police and courtroom shows have been around the longest, but there have been plenty of other backdrops for good shows. We’ve seen some great programs taking place in hospitals, schools and even the White House.
Quality prime-time dramas serve a purpose beyond the quest for ratings. They are often vehicles to express opinions on topics which are either part of the public agenda or raise awareness on subjects the writers/producers believe should be debated. Shows can even act as a catharsis for viewers. This happened quite a bit on American TV after 9/11 when producers scrambled to discuss the terror attacks’ implications on society. A good show gets its audience thinking.
SO WHY don’t we have programming like this? I believe the answer lies in the programming we have on the main television channels.
Some 80-90% of television is dominated by three main kinds of shows. First we have the family relations shows. For some reason, most of the locally produced dramas and comedies being broadcast on Channels 2 and 10 revolve around families – dysfunctional families, new families, bizarre families, families with problematic children – we’ve had it all. But despite some excellent shows, these programs are a minority.
Next are the news programs. We are inundated with news and news magazines. They seem to be endless. News is the most expensive type of TV to produce, so the channels get as many hours of programming out of their news divisions as possible. Some of these shows are actually quite interesting and have high-quality content, but it’s clearly overkill. There’s only so much current events people can handle, and while the main news broadcasts are pulling in good numbers, the rest are not ratings powerhouses.
The shows bringing in the ratings are the third type of programs, reality TV.
I don’t think there are many lovers of quality television who will disagree when I say that most reality programs aren’t of the highest caliber. This is especially true for shows like Big Brother and Survivor, two of the top-rated programs. I’ll fully admit to liking American Idol, which showcases talent, but I just don’t see the appeal of watching an eclectic group of people living in a house for more than three months.
You can’t argue with success and good numbers, but each of these types of shows creates a vacuum, leaving no room for quality dramas about public institutions like Law and Order.
Indeed, why try to bring up real issues via fiction when there is an abundance of news programs? The endless bombardment of news brings about a need for personal escapism, which is exactly what the reality programs are about. The events on shows like Big Brother have no impact on the viewer. No “torn from the headlines” plots and certainly no real implications on who wins or loses. It’s the abundance of news programs which fuels the ratings for reality shows here.
We also live in a small country, where many people know each other from school, the army and friends of friends. Spending time with your family is commonplace, as we live so close to one another. Israelis don’t need to get on a plane to be with loved ones for the holidays, we just drive. It is this closeness which fuels the popularity of family relations shows. What can be more dramatic or funny than situations we’re likely familiar with?
Perhaps TV is a reflection of our society and the direction it is taking. We all care deeply about what’s going on, and feel the need to be informed. In the US, there is barely 50 minutes devoted to news during the evening hours. On some days, we have more than triple that. On the other hand, many people – especially younger people – seem to be more occupied with issues which have nothing to do with the country’s development. They’re the ones spending so much time watching crass programs.
I hope that eventually we will have room for economically viable, well written and well acted fiction which can get people thinking about important issues. The entertainment industry certainly has the talent, and such programs wouldn’t just make for good television, they would perhaps make for a better country.
The writer is an independent media consultant, an adjunct lecturer at IDC Herzliya’s School of Communications, and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.                 Jeremy@