Israel Broadcasting Authority Spends Heavily on Low-rated Shows

Production costs at the public broadcaster higher than at commercial ones.

Nati Tucker
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Nati Tucker

Plans to reform the Israel Broadcasting Authority have been put on the back burner, and the chances that it will be shut down and replaced by another entity seem to grow stronger by the day. But there are still some folks who are enjoying a windfall from the publicly funded body, such as program producers for a bevy of poorly rated shows on Channel 1.

Production figures for the IBA’s original television broadcasts are now coming to light, following a legal battle waged by film industry associations. The report shows that the IBA poured tens of millions of shekels into a host of unsuccessful productions by close associates of powerful IBA officials, paying much more than the going market rates for relatively simple programs.

Despite the large sums mentioned by the report, the leading companies in the market with proven hits on commercial television barely show up on the list of commissioned IBA productions, even though they had submitted proposals for productions. The record raises questions on how decisions at the IBA are made, and about its policy for distributing its budget among outside producers.

Original programming

Like all broadcasters in Israel, the IBA is obliged by law to allocate part of its budget toward acquiring original programming.

But while commercial franchisees release hundreds of millions of more shekels into the market than the IBA, for years the public body hasn’t upheld the requirement to invest 36% of its revenues into original local programming. The law was intended to promote pluralism and provide an outlet for independent producers to broadcast content through the public medium, but until 2011 the budgets were swallowed up into the IBA’s general operating budget.

In 2009-2010, for example, the IBA devoted no more than NIS 9 million for such productions rather than the NIS 260 million it should have under the law. The IBA boosted the amount to NIS 25 million in 2011 − still way under the legal minimum − while being repeatedly forgiven by the state for its lack of compliance. In 2012, in preparation for the planned reform of the IBA, new legislation was adopted that lowered the requirement to 15% of revenues, about NIS 73 million − including NIS 50 million toward productions defined as “high genre.”

A look at the IBA’s expenditure budget for 2012 raises concern over the liberal disbursement of funds, but the filmmakers’ organizations − including the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum, which had asked the High Court of Justice to order the IBA to disclose its spending on programming, hardly saw any of it. They claim that production offers to the IBA by venerable producers were never given any response while other productions are fast-tracked with huge budgets.

The report shows that a large portion of IBA programming over the past year was switched to the nearly extinct TV genre of talk shows. The cost of such programs on commercial stations is relatively low, as they don’t require outside filming or extensive editing. Their main expenses usually go toward paying the show’s host, a small production team and renting the studio − but not so at the IBA.

One of the most prominent programs of the genre this year is “Shabbat” with Yaakov Cohen and Shmuel Vilozhny. According to the contract, 20 shows will be broadcast at a cost of NIS 5.8 million − nearly NIS 300,000 per installment.

“This is an unreal sum for a talk show, even with an orchestra,” according to a leading Israeli production executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, who estimated that the cost for a similar program on commercial TV might reach NIS 100,000. The audience rating achieved by “Shabbat” doesn’t justify the expense: 3.1% of the population tuned into the show on average, even less than the already low 3.4% average prime-time rating for Channel 1.

Behind Gaga

Behind “Shabbat” is Gaga Productions, which is 75%-owned by stand-up comedian Shalom Assayag. Another partner, according to the companies registry, is Ronnie Schwartz, who is reputed to have strong ties with IBA officials. Another Channel One production headed by Schwartz − “Tzimmerim” − was featured in the State Comptroller’s 2006 report after the IBA allegedly rented NIS 2.2 million in equipment without a tender and paid NIS 600,000 for months in which the equipment sat idle.

Another production company with strong connections to the IBA is Nihul Plus, whose principal is Yoav Gross.

Last year the company produced programs ahead of the High Holidays for a total cost of NIS 850,000 and won contracts for two unusually expensive programs that are not yet in production − “The Jews Are Coming” for NIS 6.6 million, and “Who Gave You a License?” for NIS 3.2 million. Together the two are spending 10% of the IBA’s total production budget for the year and a half. But Gross says there is nothing unusual about the deals.

Market leader

“The contracts I have with Channel 10 and [Channel 2 franchisee] Reshet are much bigger than the ones I have with IBA,” Gross said. “My production company is one of the leaders in the market and there’s no logical reason I wouldn’t get jobs from IBA. I bid on 15 jobs and got two productions and four specials.”

The IBA said in the report it released on its production contracts that it invested NIS 73.8 million in outside productions last year, but it admits that only NIS 42 million has so far been disbursed. This year, it has signed on NIS 28 million and has paid out NIS 15 million.

“The data submitted by the IBA to the High Court of Justice are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is happening in Romema,” the producers associations said in a joint statement, referring to the Jerusalem neighborhood where Channel 1 is based. “The IBA leadership is used to keeping the money it gets from licensing fees for public broadcasting in their own pockets.”

In response, the IBA said that all the productions cited by TheMarker went through all the required approvals.

“The amounts cited in [TheMarker’s] story are accepted costs in the television market and some of them are even lower,” the IBA said. “All the producers IBA deals with are professionals with established reputations that have met all requirements.”

It termed allegations of improper links between certain production companies and IBA officials as “tendentious” allegations by interested parties.

Assayag had not responded to the article as of press time.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority headquarters in Jerusalem. A new corporation was meant to replace it.
The Israel Broadcasting Authority headquarters in Jerusalem. A new corporation was meant to replace it. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum / BauBau