The excitement in the air was palpable one night in late February in the giant hangar at Ben-Gurion International Airport. An aggressive months-long publicity campaign by the Keshet broadcasting company, carried on Channel 2 and in newspapers, had reached its climax. Everyone who had agreed to go along with the illusion Keshet produced in its program "The Ambassador" was there. There were Nahman Shai and Jacob Derry, feeling like judges in a truly fateful trial; the families, who really believed their children had reached a great moment; an American millionaire who believed with all his heart he was changing the face of Israel in the eyes of the world; and the reporters, who pretended they were covering a news event. Even the contestants were quite excited.
Among the hundreds carefully following the instructions of the dozens of production staff, were two even more excited and captivated individuals: Keshet president Uri Shenar, and director general Avi Nir. They looked on in amazement at the colossal production, which each saw as the work of his own hands, and especially at the audience. In the headiness of the moment, it was hard to notice that the chiefs of the successful franchise practically did not speak to the same people, nor look at each other. At that time, months before the decision regarding the tender for Channel 2, the crisis between the two was already deep.
Less than a week after the festivities of "The Ambassador" were over, the rupture between them became evident, at least to those closest to them, following an article on Shenar in Haaretz Magazine. Shenar spoke with personal pride about Keshet's successes in recent years, like "A Star is Born," "Take Me Sharon," "Wonderful Country" and "The Ambassador." He waxed on about his favorite subjects, like values, discipline and Israeliness. He just forgot to note that his part in creating these program, from start to finish, was minor.
It was Nir, together with his team, who had been with the programs down to the smallest details. Shenar's statements in the interview infuriated Nir, and exposed the tense relationship between the two. Nir considered resigning, but changed his mind. Keshet managed, with the backing of the two adversaries, to prevent the crisis from hitting papers until after the decision on the tender, realizing that otherwise the damage to the company could be fatal.
The battle for fame
Only one day after Keshet won the Channel 2 tender, on April 13, the stockholders, among them Mozi Wertheim (who is also among the owners of Coca-Cola) had already met to decide who would stay on board - Shenar or Nir. Both men requested a decision be made. The question of who would win the battle had kept numerous people in the communications world busy for months before the tender. Many bet that the warm relations between Shenar and Wertheim, the strong man among Keshet's owners, would play in the former's favor. They were wrong. On May 30, Nir was chosen to lead Keshet, while Shenar was to deal with anything but leading. ("Exporting programs and formats and development of additional communications products.") He would still retain the title of president.
Shenar sees the steps he has taken in recent months as a courageous battle by a salaried worker against management that has broken a contract with him. Shenar, who became a millionaire through his work at Keshet, the confidant of the most powerful individuals in the Israeli economy and the communications industry, has developed a proletarian awareness. He defines his struggle as one of "principle" involving norms, ethics, values and accepted interpersonal relations in the business world.
"It's not a personal struggle," he told Haaretz in an interview. "I could have chosen the opposite route that would have turned it into one that was not a matter of principle, but I believe it has value and significance, if you'll excuse me. It's important for someone to stand up and say `stop.' There's no being afraid. I am no Don Quixote, nor am I an idiot. But I am not driven by my ego, and if I were the victim in all of this, you would know it. It's insisting on things that are important to me, that will show that you are not a pawn on their chess board. It's not just about Uri Shenar. There are norms of what is allowed and what is not."
The battle taking place within Keshet in recent weeks following the decision, which Shenar sees as an ouster, is first and foremost a battle for glory and recognition, and the ability to influence what goes on the screen at Channel 2. But no one imagined that the battle would go so far: Shenar, angry and insulted, has approached the Second Authority for Television and Radio, arguing that his dismissal from his duties was a breach of Keshet's obligations as part of winning the tender, an argument that has the potential to cause the company huge damage if it is proven.
The Second Authority has not made a decision in the matter and has tried, to no avail, to bring the two sides together. The battle for glory will in short order become a battle for money. According to TheMarker, Shenar is asking for NIS 53 million from Keshet. On Sunday, Shenar sued Keshet for breach of contract and preparing for his ousting even before the tender (the latter charge carries no monetary demands, meanwhile). The next day, he flew out of the country for a long trip to Bhutan. Why Bhutan? "That's the only country that doesn't know what Coca-Cola is," Shenar said, in a veiled reference to Wertheim.
The most surprising element of the Shenar affair, which ended with his final and embarrassing dismissal Tuesday, is how the franchisee, which prided itself on unity, managed to hide the conflicts between its two heads. They have been going at it to a greater or a lesser degree for three years, and yet they appeared side by side at dozens of events and press conferences.
Shenar, 51, started out as an independent TV producer. In 1995, at Wertheim's invitation, he was appointed director general of Keshet, which was young Channel 2's losing franchisee. He led the company to great success for seven years, much of that time together with Yohana Ferner, who worked under him as programming director.
During that time, Keshet was identified with top entertainers, like Dudu Topaz and Erez Tal, and with a number of successful programs.
Shenar inherited Nir from his predecessor, Alex Giladi. Nir, at that time just beginning his doctoral studies in marketing and a consultant for Keshet, abandoned his studies and moved quickly up Keshet's corporate ladder until he became marketing and programming director under Shenar. Even then, he was considered a meteor in the young commercial television market - possibly the first significant television figure who had not come out of the Channel 1 monopoly.
The turning point in Nir and Shenar's relations came about when Channel 10 started broadcasting in 2002. Nir got an offer to become director of programming for Channel 10 and was about to take it. At this point, versions differ. According to Shenar, he himself convinced the stockholders to make Nir director general of the company in his place. According to Nir, he stayed with Keshet after it threatened that he would have to take a nine-month "cooling off period" before he could work for the competition. Either way, in July 2002, the Keshet board announced that Nir was the new director general and Shenar was president, and would deal with "long-term strategic planning." Thus Shenar began to be pushed out from a position of direct influence over programming.
Shenar denied in the interview that he had been pushed out. "Look, the morning after winning the tender, do you know what I did? I sat with Erez Tal and his team on the pilot for the next animated series Erez will be doing. It's true that in the last year, because the tender was `to be or not to be' I decided to give myself totally to it. As you know, when we started out, Keshet's chances to win were low," he said. The division of labor between the two is a fascinating lesson on how to succeed at Channel 2 today. Nir, a brilliant marketing man, was made responsible for content and promoting his concept of communications. According to Nir's way of thinking, TV is not creative art, but first of all the art of sales. ("I market content," he said in the past, but is reportedly furious at the statement that marketing became the face of everything at Keshet). That end justified almost every means: endless trailers, maneuvering the print media (some of which became enthralled by Keshet's PR department), concealed advertising, unbridled promotion of one program in another, and more.
Nir is a non-delegating director, energetic and very talented, involved in the programs down to the finest details. He is also creative, in love with TV, and has created a faithful and close-knit team, responsible along with him for creating new programs and a series of successes. The change that started at Keshet a few years ago is deep: He turned it from a company dependent on big-name stars like Topaz or Tal to a company that excels in developing programming. Nir also managed to change Keshet's approach - instead of creating low-brow productions like "First in Entertainment" it became capable of creating intelligent programs with wider appeal.
On the other hand, when Shenar became president, he became a politician in every sense of the word. While Nir was consolidating his position at the company, Shenar paced the corridors of power. He created a close relationship with the director of the Second Authority, Moti Shklar, and with each of the members of the Public Council, who usually enjoy the attention of senior communications figures. He appeared in the Knesset every time Channel 2 came up for debate and took part in economic and social conferences, where he used his impressive rhetorical skills to promote Keshet as a winning company. Shenar was most recently put in charge of preparing Keshet's proposal for the tender, which together with lobbying efforts, won the company first place. On the screen, Shenar claimed direct responsibility only for one project that was close to his heart, a telethon for children at risk. Together, at least on the face of things, Nir and Shenar were a winning team.
The sin of hubris
Producers now feel embarrassed when they are asked what they think about their work with Keshet. Tamira Yardeni, the producer of "A Star is Born" and "Shemesh," said, "Over the past three years we have worked only with Avi. Before that we worked with Uri and Yohana, but then Uri dropped out to become president. Avi spends night after night in the cutting room editing the auditions for "A Star is Born" and in meetings about the line-up. The feeling is that a person who understands television is working with us. Uri managed differently. He held on to people who worked with us. He is one of the builders of Keshet, no doubt about it, but in recent years he didn't deal with programming. He is one of the more knowledgeable people in television, he's energetic and deserving of every praise."
Shenar writes in his lawsuit, "Nir, in a process that could be seen in past behavior and that became more apparent and extreme, increasingly refused to accept being an administrative subordinate to Uri, and entrenched himself under the title of director general. He took advantage of both the fact that Uri was involved up to his neck in the tender and the fact that the Keshet board was afraid of any shock to the management at such a sensitive time."
In the interview, Shenar described his relations with Nir as having their ups and downs, but he refrained from speaking against Nir personally. It seems that despite being pushed out, he has trouble liberating himself from the obligations and style of a president. He describes Nir as being unable to accept the division of labor between the two of them, and working against his greater authority. "There are all kinds of managerial crises," Shenar told Haaretz, "especially in an area that is so exposed like communications, and involves money and prestige. But you move on, and that's what I believed would happen this time, too: that we would finish with the tender and go into the next decade and things would work out."
Nir himself is keeping silent.
Many in the communications industry wondered this week what makes Shenar tick, and if he is aware of the damage he is doing to himself in striking out at the company he led.
Keshet has also not come out of the affair unscathed. Its unified image has cracked, and the leak about Shenar's astronomical salary, which last year came to NIS 1.9 million, stunned many in the industry. It can be assumed that the leak came from the Keshet board in an attempt to change the image of Shenar and pull the rug out from under his struggle, but it also impacts Keshet's image.
Shenar, by the way, thinks it is not legitimate to demand that a private individual reveal what he earns, and added that he contributes a great deal to charity.
A producer who works with Keshet said, "Two quality drama series could be produced just from Uri's bonuses. Now we find out that while the industry is breathing its last, and producers, script-writers and actors can hardly make a living, there are people making that much money on their backs. No problem, but the lack of proportion screams to the high heavens. We are always forced to decrease costs, they argue with us over every screw, and now we know why. I have no doubt that this will influence every one of us the next time we sit with Keshet to close deals about the coming programs."
In Uri Shenar's suit against Keshet, he argues that not only was his contract breached in that his job description was changed without his consent, but that the move was intentionally planned before the tender. For this reason, Shenar argues, his ousting is a breach of Keshet's obligations to Channel 2, which included employing him at least until the end of 2006.
Behind these claims is his relationship with the chair of Keshet's board of directors, Mozi Wertheim, which was unusually close. Shenar seems more hurt by Wertheim, whom he saw as a father figure, than by Avi Nir, whom he likened sometimes to an adolescent son. In the hearing held for the two in the Second Authority council about three weeks ago, Shenar was very agitated. "He was red and really shaking," said one of those present. "You could tell he was in a bad position. He described Wertheim as the most significant male figure in his life since the death of his father."
Wertheim, who appeared before the council after Shenar, described the relationship similarly. "You could tell how much this situation hurt him and that he loves Uri," the same individual said. "He said, `I fostered Uri and I raised him, I even suggested he become chairman in my place.'"
In his interview with Haaretz, Shenar still has warm words for his employer. "Mozi was an unusual figure in the business world, in my mind," he said. "A man with broad horizons, a stimulating conversationalist, very wise. I am proud and feel fortunate to have worked with him for many years. In the business world, there are few models of such harmonious relations, both on a professional and personal level."
In response to the question as to whether he felt betrayed by Wertheim, Shenar said, "Betrayal is a word for another kind of relationship, but here there is something of a betrayal of faith - the kind of faith I had in him and he had in me, which was rare and built through hard work."
After the tender was won, and in response to Shenar's demand that Nir be fired, Wertheim tried to find a compromise between the two, by diverting Shenar in other directions. Shenar refused, and announced that he was "not ready to water plants" (a quote from Alex Giladi, who had gone through a similar process). The decision of Nir over Shenar seemed to stem, among other things, from a new investor in Keshet, communications mogul Haim Saban. The day after Keshet won the tender, Saban invited Nir and Shenar for personal talks to discuss their leadership concept for the company.
Saban's representative in Israel, Alon Shalev, former editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, was a personal friend of Shenar. Now the two are not speaking; Shenar sees him as responsible for his downfall from Keshet. But when Shenar was asked the hardest question of all - why Wertheim, the man so close to him, turned his back, as Shenar presents it, he has trouble finding an answer. "I know it sounds strange, but I have been dealing with this question for the first week after my ousting, and at a certain point I said to myself - forget about it, you're not their therapist. I'm aiming at other things now. I really am in another place."
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