In recent weeks, the country's three television news stations have been burning the midnight oil. The unusual feverishness in the conference rooms at channels 1, 2 and 3 has been due to increasing reports of progress on the deal to release captive soldier Gilad Shalit. The directors, deputy directors, top news editors and producers are all huddling, planning how the TV screen will look on the day the deal goes through: the number of trailers, where the reports will be broadcast from and, above all, who will bear the burden of manning the "open studios."

A major news event, for example a war in the Gaza Strip or in the north, interrupts the regular programming schedule, making way for continuous news broadcasting throughout the day, referred to as the open studio. Nowadays this sounds obvious, even necessary - just like the existence of three news companies, on three channels, broadcasting three news programs - but it is in fact a relatively new invention.

More than other phenomena, it seems the open studio, in which the start of broadcasts is known and the end is not, symbolizes how television news has changed over the past decade. Daily competition is fueled by social and technological changes that are reflected in the national agenda. The public demand to be a part of what is happening, if only as an observer, is part of a phenomenon whose ramifications can be seen right on screen.

'Tribal news broadcast'

The first two years of this century, at least with respect to TV news, resembled the years that preceded them. In 1993, Channel 2 was established, along with its news company, which attempted to bite into the exclusive share of the Mabat evening broadcast on Channel 1. Most mark a shift in viewership exactly two years from the day of the Channel 2's first broadcast, with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the ensuing week of mourning.

Following that event, Channel 2 news, which succeeded in distinguishing itself through the use of young language, clip-like editing and intentionally fewer talking heads in favor of images, became "the tribal news broadcast." In the subsequent years it has succeeded in establishing itself, pulling away more and more viewers from Mabat.

At the start of the decade, Channel 2 and Channel 1 also managed to survive two difficult years with respect to the country's security. The Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000 and the horrific sequence of terror attacks in 2001 compelled media professionals to hone their abilities. Apparently at that time, too, the viewers' proclivity for continuous news broadcasting also began.

However, it seems none of those events disrupted the tranquillity of those in the industry like the arrival of the third channel. On January 28, 2002, the Channel 10 news company joined the game, with Yaakov Elon - who not long before then had resigned from Channel 2 - appearing on screen. At the end of that year he was joined by Miki Haimovich, who had been his broadcast partner at Channel 2.

However, it wasn't only the talents moving from one channel to another that had the competitors worried. "At that time they predicted for us, certainly when Miki left, and before that when Yaakov left, that the next thing was coming and we'd be hurt," recalls Shalom Kital, former CEO of Channel 2 and until recently advisor to the defense minister. "I believed that if we worked correctly, history would not repeat itself. We found a young woman who worked as a 'newsflash' person and on the company's foreign desk - Yonat Levy - and made her a presenter; apart from that, we reacted without pressure. This [strategy] proved itself."

A complicated period awaited Channel 10. At least until the end of 2004. "There's no place in the world that has dealt with broadcasting news under the kind of pressure that existed here," asserts Uri Levy, until recently head of the news department at Channel 1. "This was a period of major terror attacks. People worked under tremendous pressure, long hours of endless broadcasting and harsh competition. The broadcasting was immediate, fast, from everywhere and with no prior preparation. That's how the first part of the decade looked."

Stiff competition

While there were fewer terror attacks in the second half of the decade, it in fact was characterized by major news events, precisely of the sort that lead to the open-studio format. The year 2005 saw the disengagement from Gaza, prime minister Ariel Sharon's illness and the Second Lebanon War; about a year ago there was Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. These events, according to Channel 10, led to an audience migration to their broadcast.

But it's hard to entirely agree with this claim. While there was a shift in viewers, the figures - which remained nearly double in Channel 2's favor - prove those events did not do for Channel 10 what Rabin's assassination had done for the balance of power between Channel 1 and Channel 2.

What did happen though, and is becoming more marked, is the ceaseless competition between the two commercial channels.

"Today it's not possible to cover up stories or interests - this an absolute and existing fact now," says Elon. "But this competition also has sides to it that are not as good. The channels in their entirety, and not only the news, are very influenced by ratings and some of this influence has seeped into the news broadcasts."

All this is also closely connected to the concept of the open studio or in other words, the prominence of news broadcasts during times of crisis. This was not so in the 1970s and 1980s, recalls Levy. In fact major entertainment productions were produced and broadcast in times of war.

"The open studio ... is the modern tribal campfire," he says, "when in times of crisis everyone gathers around the presenters and the commentators. During the Second Lebanon War, for example, we tried to dilute the news broadcasts. We got very chilly reactions. People wanted to connect to the field and any attempt to escape from that failed miserably."

If there is one thing that can be noted, then, about news during the past decade, it's the fact that it keeps quite a large audience glued to the screen. The various evening news programs rake in a combined average rating of more than 30 percent, a high number relative to such figures elsewhere in the world. The numerous current events shows also help explain phenomena unique to Israel - for example the length of the main news broadcasts.

During the past decade, each of the channels' main news shows have increased in length from half an hour to about one hour. This decision, which began at Channel 10, stems from a number of considerations. Among them, financial concerns, as the news desk is already working anyway and news broadcasts attract viewers.

However, in the past decade, the time increase has also had far-reaching ramifications. Thus, in effect, the second half of the news broadcast was born, an expansion that involves a lot of attention paid to culture and entertainment news, increased consumer and sports coverage and even weather forecasts that provide an opportunity for casual chitchat in the studio.

Is this news? The issue came to a head at the Eilat journalism conference a few weeks ago, with the Channel 2 and 10 news directors vehemently rebuffing the criticism.

"What happened to the news during this period is that the theory to the effect that there is nothing that isn't news has proven true," says Channel 10 News chief executive Reudor Benziman. "The varied treatment of topics that can legitimately be called news has increased immeasurably as compared to a decade ago. From my perspective there is nothing that isn't news, provided it conforms to the basic requirements. Along with this, news has loosened its necktie. It is less puffed up with self-importance and the public agenda has become less cliched."

And is this a defined aim?

"This is definitely intentional. Viewers need a choice in order to decide what is more suited to them. The channel's decision to be warmer, more accessible and less patronizing also stems from this."

This decision, argues journalist, lecturer and Sokolov Prize laureate David Witztum, relates to far deeper changes within Israeli society. "The news reflects social processes," he says. "There's more attention to the individual and less to the state and institutions. Nowadays an injustice done to a citizen is stronger than an item on a political party."

It almost goes without saying that not everyone agrees with this approach. "To sum it up in a phrase, 'Yellow, yellow, yellow,'" says Akiva Cohen, a professor of communications at Tel Aviv University.

Cohen rejects other assumptions outright: "Since the founding of Channel 2, and even more so since Channel 10 began its broadcasts, the number of news viewers on the various channels has gone down... Israelis are not all that eager to watch news."

The yellowing, says Cohen, is evident in coverage nowadays, for example in the recent affair involving the alleged rape committed by the chief of staff's bodyguard.

Cohen gets heated: "Miki Haimovich interviewed the complainant. The interview itself, with the face blurred, is still of value, but Channel 10 was very manipulative: They prepared and broadcast an illustrative film. The complainant relates that she walked to her car in the dark and the channel shows a film of an actress walking in the dark. She relates, 'I shut the door and then he tried to drag me out,' with horrifying illustrative pictures accompanying her words. This to my mind is a disgrace. Nevermind the interview, that has news value, but what is the value of the illustration?"

"I once visited one of the big television stations in Spain," relates Elon. "Things were conducted so tranquilly that I couldn't understand when the main news program would be aired. When I asked, they were flabbergasted and made it clear the news was broadcast at 1:00 in the afternoon, before the siesta."

A slot like this for the news, like maintaining a traditional and conservative framework in reporting, simply couldn't happen in Israel, says Elon. "Israel is one of the biggest consumers of news in the world and also one of its biggest producers," he says. "The interest in the news is imprinted in us and the programs represent this interest."