Public Television Tunes Into a New Era

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The Israel Broadcasting Authority building in Jerusalem. Credit: Yael Engelhart

After decades of steady decline and near death, public broadcasting got a second lease on life this week after Communications Minister Gilad Erdan succeeded in passing a dramatic reform in the sector. The Israel Broadcasting Authority will be closed down and in its place a new public broadcasting body will arise.

It was no easy matter to push this bill through the legislative process. Erdan faced political opposition from inside the coalition and without, as well as from the Histadrut labor federation. But in the end, the law passed with a thin showing of Likud Knesset members and ministers – mostly because of the support of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Immediately after the law goes into effect, sometime in the next 45 days, the state receiver will appoint a liquidator for the IBA whose job will be especially complex: He will be required to keep public television and radio on the air without any break until the new body starts broadcasting.

At the same time, the liquidator, who will come from one of Israel’s largest law firms, will be laying off all of IBA’s employees, transferring its land to the government, paying off debts to suppliers and fulfilling the IBA’s legal obligations to buy content worth tens of millions of shekels until the end of the year.

Once the liquidator starts his or her work, the IBA governing board will be disbanded. The liquidator, with the court’s approval, may appoint a new editor in chief in place of the director general to be in charge of programming. But many senior managers are expected to remain in their jobs to allow broadcasting to continue for now. A last-minute change introduced into the law will allow the liquidator to fire employees as he sees necessary, including for efficiency and savings.

Launch in March ... or a little later

While the new body is scheduled to start broadcasting next March, Erdan has the authority to delay the March date by up to six months. In any case, the process of liquidating the old IBA could take many years, until all its debts are paid off and its real estate is sold to cover it. The liquidation of Educational Television will be simpler, since it is officially a unit of the Education Ministry and its employees are civil servants.

The IBA’s 2,000 employees will be hit the hardest by the reforms. All of them will have been fired by the time the broadcasting authority goes live. Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry and the Histadrut have been conducting intensive negotiations on the matter of the severance conditions.

Most IBA employees are over 50, an age when it is very hard to find a new job. Moreover, many worked in jobs where the technologies they know are dying out. But they will enjoy generous severance conditions, with the average cost per employee expected to reach 920,000 shekels, (nearly $270,000). The 1.3 billion-shekel bill will be covered mostly by the sale of IBA properties in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Some employees, mostly journalists, will probably be hired by the new authority. The Histadrut will continue to fight to have as many IBA employees as possible hired by the new body.

As for the television license fee, people will still be liable for it this year. The public will be charged a partial, final fee in 2015, covering the time the IBA continues to operate. Refusing to pay will still bring debt collectors to your front door.

However, once the new body starts broadcasting, as early as March, the license fee will end. The public will continue to pay for public broadcasting, but out of its regular taxes, mostly as part of the annual vehicle license fee, which include a 136-shekel charge for the car radio broadcasts, which in turn goes directly to the IBA today, and will go to the new organization in the future.

How will the new public broadcasting authority be funded?

Now that television tax is about to be canceled, leaving a 450 million-shekel annual hole in public broadcasting’s budget, most of the money will come from the radio license fee, advertising and, surprisingly, the Transportation Ministry. The total budget for the new public broadcasting authority is estimated at 750 million shekels a year. The Knesset decided that 650 million will come from license fees and the Transportation Ministry.

Political interference

The problem, say critics, is that funding directly from the general state budget will lead to political interference. But the finance and communications ministries have said the broadcasting budget will be fixed, regardless of the actual amounts coming from the license fees, and the ministries will not be able to change it. In any case, the body is supposed to spend less than the 870 million shekels the IBA was spending on top of another 120 million for Educational Television. Much of the savings will come from lowered staff costs, as well from the 30 million shekels a year now spent on collecting the television license fees.

Content will change, too. The new authority will not produce its own programs, except for news, but will purchase about 200 million shekels of programming a year, 90% of which will be produced in Israel. Half of that will have to be what is considered “high quality” programming, such as drama and documentaries, while the rest can be standard fare such as sitcoms, talk shows and reality programming.

Channel 33 will become a full-time Arabic station. As for children’s programming, there will be a children’s channel, though its budget will be only 40 million shekels a year.

That is not a big budget for programming. The commercial broadcasters on Channels Two and 10 spend between 250 million and 300 million shekels annually, but even with a more modest budget, the new public channel could distinguish itself as the place for higher quality programming. But that won’t happen for another two or three years, until the new broadcast body first runs through its current inventory of contracted programs.

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