Contending With Budget Cuts and Labor Sanctions, Channel 1 Employees Try to Keep Their Heads Up

Shortly before 4 P.M. last Thursday, Alon Vallan, who works on Channel 1 television's foreign desk, dashed over to the plasma screen on his left. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, was speaking about the British passports used by the team that assassinated Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. Vallan turned up the volume, rested his chin on his hand and looked desperately at the screen.

"I'm sitting here in this room, watching my promised land on all the screens and thinking, 'that too has been taken from me,'" he said as he turned the volume down once more.

While similar statements have been made before, the situation at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and especially at Channel 1, has never been worse.

A proposed reform has been stuck for years due to lack of agreement, and the station's deficit stands at NIS 100 million. In early January, this led management to decide on a series of unprecedented cuts. Broadcasting vans, studio hours and editing facilities were slashed; the "Mabat" news broadcast was shortened to half an hour; the channel has stopped broadcasting after 11 P.M.; and programs were taken off the air.

Topping it all off was the usual wrangling between management and the unions. Currently, blame is being cast at the technicians' union, which decided to impose sanctions to protest management's moves. As part of the sanctions, the technicians announced that they would not broadcast anything they themselves had not filmed. Thus the channel's satellite room was deserted, broadcasts from foreign media are not being recorded, and the fiber optic cable used by freelancers from the north and south has been disconnected.

"We cannot receive or broadcast material from abroad, either from news agencies or from foreign TV channels," said Avi Cohen, the chief producer. "In order to broadcast what happened in Dubai, we had to bring a photographer who filmed what was on the TV screens ... Instead of the reports that I'm not able to bring, or to edit, we have to bring in people to be interviewed in the studio. I'm making concessions about the quality of the items, the packaging is impaired, and we cannot get assistance from any outside party."

At the end of the corridor, the door to the office of news division head Yoram Cohen stands open. Cohen said he spends most of the day shuffling workers around, begging union leaders to give him a little leeway and chasing his own tail. "My job is to broadcast news, but my ability to respond to events has been greatly diminished," he admitted. "[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah's remarks a few days ago were broadcast with a still picture and without sound."

It is easy to make fun of the way the IBA conducts itself when material is transferred onto old-fashioned tapes and transported by taxi because one union or another is refusing to allow the fiber optic cable to be used. Nevertheless, the workers' struggle has generated a great deal of solidarity.

"There's an idea that everything can be privatized," said David Witztum, whose program "From Today Till Tomorrow" was taken off the air as part of the cuts. "But one of the conditions is that people who worked here all their lives must be promised fair terms. It's too easy to blame the technicians."

At 3 P.M., the workers convened for a meeting about the news. A plate of biscuits on the table looked like it had seen better days. The discussion focused on the diplomatic crisis sparked by the Dubai assassination. When someone noted that the Dubai police believe it was the work of the Mossad, Yael Kashani, who edits the news, said in desperation that she did not know how they would manage. But at least a solution was found for the story about African refugees who want to infiltrate into Israel from Egypt: The material filmed by local reporters in the south would be sent to Jerusalem by taxi.

"What we're doing right now is going from one improvisation to another, and it is embarrassing," said veteran broadcaster Uri Levy. "In the end, we fill half an hour of air time, but it's not serious. Any mention of a receiver, or of closing down the authority and reopening it, is very disturbing. On the other hand, the present situation is terrible. The worst thing of all would be to continue broadcasting like this - worse than either the reform or shutting down the authority. In this situation, our broadcasts are flawed and distorted; they are simply amateurish work."