Broadcasting in the PM's Hands

Netanyahu likes to be seen as a prophet of technology, but like his predecessors, he enjoys wielding the influence inherent in controlling news broadcasts.

The abdication of responsibility by Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein over the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the difficulties encountered in appointing a new chairman reflect the crumbling state of the country's public broadcasting. With the IBA suffering from a leadership vacuum, a stalled restructuring plan and labor disputes - and having recently announced that the end of broadcasting each day will be brought forward to 11 P.M. - it seems the authority is heading not toward rehabilitation, but collapse.

Israel needs public broadcasting to offer an alternative of quality programming to commercial stations, and as in other developed countries, it must promote fresh, creative and diverse content. There is little dispute over these noble goals, but reaching them has been held up for years by excessive political intervention, problematic labor relations, overstaffing and technological deficiencies.

The IBA resembles a company with a successful flagship product - in this case, radio broadcasts - and another damaged, unwanted product known as Channel 1 television. The popularity of Israel Radio - which combines a central news station with music and culture niche stations, as well as foreign-language programming - proves that public broadcasting can provide diverse content while enjoying high ratings. A similar revolution could and must occur in public television, which today consists of a single channel but could be divided into several stations of more focused, high-quality programming. The IBA must also strengthen its presence on the Internet and not rely solely on the previous century's technology.

The restructuring plan was intended to balance the broadcasting authority's budget by laying off around half its employees. Streamlining is necessary but will not be enough to save public broadcasting. The IBA needs leadership that will fight for its place in the media market and draw viewers from the crass reality programs on commercial television.

The responsibility for rehabilitating the IBA falls on the prime minister, who accepted Edelstein's resignation. Benjamin Netanyahu likes to portray himself as a reformer and prophet of technology, but like his predecessors, he enjoys wielding the influence inherent in controlling news broadcasts. The success of restructuring depends on his willingness to eschew political expediency and appoint professional and independent leaders to the IBA in the interest of saving public broadcasting.