Public Television Overhaul Ensnared in Delays, Poor Planning

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

Israelis will probably be getting bills for the much-hated television and radio license in the days after the March 17 election due to delays and poor planning in the overhaul of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

The reforms, one of whose main points is a pledge to do away with the TV tax, were supposed to go into effect by March 31. They were introduced with great fanfare by Gilad Erdan just before he stepped down as communications minister last autumn.

Erdan promised not just an end to the tax but an end to the IBA itself. He pledged better-quality programming and more efficient management under the auspices of a new TV authority.

Instead, implementation of the Public Broadcasting Law has been ensnared by delays in creating a new broadcast authority, which means television owners will be liable for the TV tax this year and maybe into 2016. Without the tax, the authority would have to shut down.

“In the legislative process, there was no one looking at the big picture to foresee the problems that would emerge. They ran to provide the lawmakers with a law often without thinking,” said a source close to the reforms who asked not to be identified.

Erdan, now interior minister, is still responsible for implementing the law. He has the right to seek two three-month delays in setting up the new broadcast authority until as late as this October.

Erdan has already applied for one extension, which would enable the old IBA to collect the TV tax for the first half of the year, but has not yet received approval from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has the authority to accept or reject the move. A rejection could come for obvious reasons: Netanyahu wouldn’t want news that the TV tax is still in force coming out just before the March 17 election.

The first problem in shutting down the IBA’s broadcast operations was deadline misalignment. While the Israel Land Authority was due to take over the properties from which the IBA operates in Jerusalem and evict the IBA, the IBA was actually investing in new studios and high-definition TV technology for election coverage and its nightly “Mabat” news show.

In any case, the team responsible for setting up the broadcast authority has yet to find substitute office space in Jerusalem, which by law is where it must be headquartered. A workforce of 700 is expected. “No one is going to evict us right now. There’s simply nowhere to go,” said one IBA source.

A similar problem exists for finding a new home for the new authority’s Tel Aviv offices. Union opposition to relocating is another barrier.

Unions agreed to support voluntary layoffs negotiated through arbitration, instead of imposing the terms of the Public Broadcasting Law, which called for wholesale dismissals. But only a handful of employees have accepted buyout offers and the IBA is still saddled with a bloated payroll.

“People are still coming to work and do nothing simply because they’re in no rush to quit,” said a source close to the IBA. “In the meantime, they’re collecting their salaries and will eventually get improved severance terms, so why should they rush to leave now?”

The failure to get the IBA out of its buildings has added to the problem. The treasury was counting on the 1.2 billion shekels ($303 million) in estimated proceeds from selling the real estate to cover the severance pay of IBA workers.

Meanwhile, the transition to the new broadcast authority has been going slowly.

Yona Wiesenthal, who is heading the IBA during the transition phase, realized that in order to ensure a smooth transition to the new authority, he would already have to do some hiring and begin ordering programming.

While he has put high-profile journalist Ayala Hasson on the payroll and has begun ordering programming after a delay, the treasury has blocked almost all other new appointments and told him to rehire staff from the old IBA.

And the appointment of a transitional director general for the new authority faces a tangle of problems. The committee appointed to find a director is supposed to announce its choice next week and shortly thereafter the chairman and board.

But, awkwardly, the law only gives the transitional director authority to appoint a small team that will determine the structure of the new authority. He or she will have no say in the broadcaster’s content and cannot hire journalists and other staff. Few candidates, not even Wiesenthal, a natural candidate, have applied.

In any event, whoever is named director general will not come on board for a while, and the process of creating a new broadcast-authority structure will take time after that. The delays will take so long that the Knesset will probably have to amend the Public Broadcasting Law to change the startup date.

And that is assuming Zionist Union doesn’t form the next government. Its chairman, Isaac Herzog, has harshly criticized the law and will likely seek to amend it.

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