The future of Israeli TV is on the line

There’s no money left and there’s no hope that additional funds might appear in the near future.

Israeli television control room (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli television control room
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Exactly 24 years ago, in November 1993, we launched Israel’s TV Channel 2, as it was called then. I was the first director-general of the new network, and for two years prior to the launching we worked diligently to prepare the tenders for three franchises that were expected to broadcast on that channel.
Preparations for the opening of the commercial TV station lasted 20 years, and Amnon Rubinstein and Avraham Poraz, who had served as ministers and members of Knesset, ran the channel with determination and diligence. It was a very unusual style of broadcasting. We traveled to the UK to learn how the British broadcasting system functioned, and there even more questions surfaced and we became increasingly puzzled.
No one believed that this strange channel, which was split among three franchises, could possibly succeed. Not only was it viable – it thrived. Not just from a financial and commercial point of view (the franchises were extremely profitable), but because it had overhauled the media industry, introduced competition, brought in diversification, and above all, contributed tremendously to the development of the Israeli film and television industries.
There are very few quiet moments in Israel. Every minister of communications and chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority has tried to leave his own mark, and this restlessness led to new ideas and the creation of a new commercial outlet, Channel 10. Now Channel 2 is being separated into two separate channels. The upheaval is complete.
It is clear that we are on the path to financial and commercial failure, and this flourishing industry that was forged with so much creativity and hard work from talented, young staffers is bound to suffer.
Throughout this long period, financial criteria were introduced to the tender, something which we tried so hard to avoid, and they required the franchisees to pay huge, unrealistic amounts of money. They did the accounting only later, when they were going over production expenditures, at which point they eased up on restrictions for regulators.
The financial forecasts crashed not only as a result of regulatory initiatives, but also due to fundamental changes in the world of communications. The increased popularity of social networks and smartphones led to the multiplication of players in the field.
No one could have predicted – not then and not even 10 years ago – that entities like Facebook and Google would invade the industry and capture hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, the taxes on which had once filled the coffers of the Israeli economy.
Who can know whether future developments might continue to alter the status quo? We will soon find out.
Meanwhile, the decision-makers decided to follow an alternative route: to weaken the media, to dilute them and scatter the power centers of the mythological tribal bonfire among a number of small fires.
The underlying assumption was that, in any case, their influence would diminish over time and the power of these “leftist” outlets would weaken.
The cruel competition that the media were always anticipating, like a sword hovering over the public corporation, will drag everyone into unbridled competition. The need to always be providing enticing headlines and raise ratings will only serve to exacerbate the situation.
License holders who are now generously managing the channels in an effort to publicly position themselves will soon be forced to realize that the budgets have evaporated. There’s no money left and there’s no hope that additional funds might appear in the near future.
The writing is on the wall. The financial cost will quickly be converted into poor quality programming. The number of viewers might remain at the current level, but will continue to be divided among new and veteran viewers.
This will all soon result in an avalanche.
Very quickly, legislators will try to reduce the regulatory obligations of license holders in an effort to enable them to spread their wings and rise back up. Naturally, such a move would lead to a mass protest by individuals and small companies involved in production that will lose out due to significant cuts.
At the time, it was said that the commercial channel would fill this void. But now I’m not so sure of this, given the questions that have arisen lately. I’m not nostalgic for the good ol’ days. I accept the idea that change is good and that we must adapt to the new reality.
But this must be carried out wisely, intelligently, carefully, professionally, and in a way that will best benefit the Israeli public.
I have not seen any activity of this sort. I’ve been searching, but it is nowhere to be found.
The writer is a media expert and MK from the Zionist Union Party, and previously served as CEO of the Second Authority for Television and Radio and chairman of Channel 2.