A year ago, after completing a decade or so as an anchorman for Channel 10's main news program, Israeli anchorman Ya’akov Eilon sat at home wondering what to do next. Having resigned, his first evening in front of the television wasn't easy.
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“I thought a lot about what would come next,” he says. “I’m not the kind of person who can stay idle and play paddleball on the beach. I never thought about going into politics or changing my profession. It took time to get used to not sitting in front of the camera at 8 P.M. But it wasn’t any kind of crisis.”
So Eilon moved on. He eventually became the manager of news and current affairs at the website Mako, which belongs to Channel 2 franchisee Keshet. He also presented programs on the election campaigns in the United States and Israel.
He returned to the anchorman's chair late last February, this time for the Keshet program "Ha’olam Halayla," a survey of world news presented in a lighthearted spirit. After a hiatus of several weeks, the program is returning to Channel 2, this time in a longer version.
Eilon, 52, is married and the father of two. He began his media career at Army Radio during his service in the Israel Defense Forces. He headed the broadcast team in Beirut during the first Lebanon war and worked as a reporter in New York.
Later, he worked at the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and helped found the local news desk at the cable television company Tevel. In 1993 he helped establish Channel 2’s news company, and in November that year he opened the first news broadcast.
He worked as a Channel 2 anchorman for seven years, most of that time with co-anchor Miki Haimovich, until he resigned to join a new news channel in the works. But that station never got off the ground, so Eilon joined the team establishing Channel 10; when the station went on the air in 2002, he became its main news anchor. He was a refined presenter, never losing his cool.
The Givatayim connection
But Eilon had a troubled relationship with management at Channel 10. Despite the law requiring the news company to broadcast its main program out of Jerusalem, the staff and studio operated out of Givatayim. The strange compromise was for Eilon to broadcast from a studio in Jerusalem, isolated from the news staff. After several months of this, he resigned.
"Sitting alone turned me into a reader of intros with mistakes because I wasn’t there with the staff. That was the low point," he says. "But management has changed there, and maybe they can rebuild. I hope so.”
From there, Eilon went on to a nighttime current-affairs program with a lighthearted spirit. The critics weren't lavish in their praise, and some people wondered whether this was another case of a high-ranking news anchor not finding his feet after leaving a job.
“I’m not familiar with that theory," Eilon says. "I do what I love — current affairs and media, television and the Internet, and now I can spread out to things with more variety. I don’t think of these things as having lesser value."
One of the biggest disagreements at Channel 10 had to do with management’s desire to give the news program a lighter atmosphere, to add more news on areas such as entertainment, culture and consumer affairs. Eilon, a hard-core newsman, was opposed.
“He’s a professional, devoted to the field, but he’s unyielding and unenthusiastic about innovations,” a former colleague said. “Some saw him as an anachronism. Nobody can say he’s not a professional, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about the attempt to do something different.”
Other employees at the company have spoken similarly about the frustrations over the different approaches. Eilon chooses not to talk about it; his attitude is clear about the lighter direction the main news shows are taking.
“We’re a country characterized by going to extremes," he says. "For 25 years there was Channel 1, and all they talked about was what people in the government and in the Knesset said, and which ceremony was held in the army. Later, when Channel 2 came along, the curtain opened, and it has been opening ever since. At some stage, the subject of ratings trickled into the news intensively. Now, unfortunately, it’s the bread and butter.”
A bit of sensationalism
What form does that take?
“News editors and managers go around with a ratings chart, and that has caused mistakes about how we’re going to raise ratings. I think lots of mistakes have been made in this area over the years – attempts to wink at the viewers, to indulge in sensationalism. Over the past few years there have been unnecessary exaggerations. But I still look at Channel 2 with respect and appreciation, and its mix is more logical.”
If you were given a chance to anchor on Channel 2 again, would you take it?
“I am where I am …. There’s no reason to look back at all. Enough. There are many more interesting things to do and programs to create."
Interesting or not, it’s certainly more rewarding in terms of ratings. Channel 10's news program has tried for double-digit ratings over the past few years, mostly without success. According to the Israel Audience Research Board, the program's average rating this year has been 8.9 percent among the general public. The "Ha’olam Halayla" program's first month on Channel 2 garnered 16 percent among the general public.
Do you remember what you thought the first time you looked at the ratings chart and saw a number you’d never seen at Channel 10?
“I had a cynical thought: ‘At least they won’t be firing us over the next few weeks.’ I don’t think it measures whether you’re valuable or not. Mostly, it gives you room to work. If the program got a 6-percent rating, it wouldn’t have been broadcast for two weeks, and the day that happens I’ll look for something else, because that’s what happens in commercial television. That elusive thing, ratings, mustn’t be the goal. The goal should be to be a good program that you believe in. After all, if ratings go down, I’m not going to bring in striptease artists.”
The man appears to merge with the persona when Eilon is asked how he feels about the transition from doing a major news broadcast. “I don’t like talking about myself,” he says.
In fact, early on, people described him as a robot because of his cool, unemotional delivery. But Eilon is no robot. Yes, he's definitely “very discreet about himself; he speaks carefully and weighs every word,” as "Ha’olam Halayla" editor Efi Triger describes him. As an employee of Channel 10’s news program puts it, “He’s careful to protect himself.”
It looks like you’re bolstering your image as Ya’akov Eilon, professional broadcaster.
“All those statements were made a long time ago. I’ve softened since then. At the time, I couldn’t understand why that happened and why they said that about me, but with time I’ve learned that it’s an image. Somebody says something and somebody else recycles it, and things get stuck.
"We do that many times as journalists. They described me as a robot many times, and I didn’t understand why. You don’t always get why people stick to something and how an image sticks to you. In the end, I realized that I hadn’t been aware of how people looked at me from the outside. But it’s natural, and it’s over. It was a long time ago. I’m no robot.”