Israel's Only Private Arabic TV Channel Thrives After Help From Surprising Ally

Once on the verge of collapse, Hala TV is now aiming to become the home station for the county's Arabic-speaking community

Nati Toker
Nati Tucker
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An interview with Hala Shabab, the channel's news magazine for youth.
An interview with Hala Shabab, the channel's news magazine for youth. Credit: Nati Tucker
Nati Toker
Nati Tucker

The interview that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz granted to Hala TV, an Arabic-language Israeli station, in early August made waves and exposed the Jewish Israeli public’s ignorance about Arabic news outlets in Israel. In the interview, Gantz stated that he didn’t reject the option of an Arab candidate on his party’s Knesset list; some of the news outlets citing him didn’t even know how to spell the TV station’s name. Israel Hayom called the station “Allah TV” – using the Arabic word for God.

For Israel’s Arabic-speaking community, however, Hala TV holds an important place. Over the past two years, the station has been flourishing, after businessman Basem Jaber bought full control of it in 2016 and implemented efficiency measures.

Jaber says that this is the first year the station is forecast to turn a profit, after losing tens of millions of shekels since its founding in 2012.

>> Read more: How Israeli media became a playground for billionaires

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39

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“The station was on the verge of collapse,” says Jaber. “We carried out an efficiency plan and also increased revenues, bringing the station to a forecast profit of several hundred thousand shekels for 2019.”

Hala TV is currently the only commercial Arabic-language TV station in Israel. The country’s only other Arabic-language station, Kan 33, is owned by the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation.

Hala TV was founded by a diverse group of investors and TV personalities, both Jewish and Arab, who believed that their project was both important and potentially profitable.

Before it began broadcasting, Arabic speakers in Israel got their news primarily from stations in other countries, through their own private satellite dishes. It seemed like a local station would have little chance of breaking into the market. The initial investors sunk 30 million shekels ($8.5 million) into Hala before deciding to abandon the project, at which point Jaber stepped in. He paid 2 million shekels to enlarge his stake in the station from 5% to 100% of shares.

Jaber is a tycoon in Israel’s Arabic-language media landscape. He runs the country’s largest Arabic-language news portal, Panet, and is a former diplomatic and sports correspondent for Israeli public radio Kol Israel in Arabic.

“Our goal is to be the home station for the Arabic-speaking community in Israel, and to inform them of what’s happening in the local scene. There’s no commercial station doing this,” says Jaber.

By 2016, Hala was at the verge of shuttering not only due to financial difficulties but because it couldn’t meet the criteria for producing original content that had been a condition of its broadcast license. The station didn’t make the 60-million shekel investment in creating original Israeli content that it had committed to, and the Second Authority for Television and Radio had been slated to discuss revoking its license.

Surprisingly, salvation came from a media body on the opposite side of the political map: Channel 20. That station, which is considered right wing, violated the terms of its license, according to which it was to focus on Israeli heritage; instead it aired mainly news programs. The government and Knesset rallied to help Channel 20, passing legislation in 2017 that loosened regulations, freeing some stations, among them, Hala, from their commitment to provide original content. Thus, Hala saved from closure.

Basem JaberCredit: David Bachar

Jaber worked with Channel 20 in lobbying for the legislation and appeared at nearly all the committee discussions, but since the bill was government-sponsored and tailored for Channel 20, most of the Arab MKs from the Joint List chose to boycott the vote.

Jaber says he was disappointed in how the Arab MKs handled themselves.

“I told them, ‘you’re doing something illegitimate. This is a bill that could save us, too.’ There was a barter here. You should vote in favor. After all, they’re interviewed on our station in Arabic. Aside from [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi and [Meretz MK] Esawi Freige, no one wanted to help us,” said Jaber.

Jaber sees the station as expanding democratic values among Israel’s Arabic-speaking community, as well as creating a conversation with the Jewish majority, making it a platform for intercultural dialogue.

Jaber says he doesn’t shy away from any topic, even at the risk of upsetting viewers.

“I have no problem interviewing [racist, far-right politician] Itamar Ben Gvir, should the channel’s editors choose to,” he says. The station is considering inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair Netanyahu to be interviewed by host Fadi Jaber, a race-car driver and Jaber’s son. (Interviews on the show take place during races).

Hala does most of its filming at three studios in the central Israeli Arab city of Taibeh at relatively low cost, and focuses primarily on news, sports, culture and finance. One show, titled “Exit,” focuses on business success stories among the Arab-Israeli community.

The channel has a mere 3 million shekels a year in advertising revenues. It struggles to find advertisers from among Israel’s largest companies, as many do not invest in the Arab consumer market. An estimated 3% of the advertising budget in Israel is directed at the Arab market, even though the community accounts for some 20% of citizens.

Hala is not included in Israel’s official ratings; since its viewership figures aren’t made public, it’s harder to draw advertisers.

But Jaber is aiming high.

“Panet is the number one internet content creator in Arabic in Israel,” he says, “and we intend to do the same thing for TV.”