Making Over the TV Channel That Israelis Love to Hate

Being financed by the taxpayer, not commercials, Channel 1 can afford to be experimental. Its chiefs promise excitement in the new program schedule, and that red tape will suddenly evaporate, too.

This coming May, Israel's national TV channel will be marking its 45th anniversary. But the mood at the kicky Jerusalem restaurant where the Channel 1 network personnel toasted their new programming schedule on Wednesday morning, was more like a new network launch.

For years Channel 1 – the network so many Israelis love to hate – has been trying to present an alternative to the sudden abundance of competing television stations. Yet Israel’s first television channel had been reduced to an un-funny joke, marked by stagnation and enormous waste on things with zero relation to content.

Perhaps its very salvation comes from being forced to start obeying the law. That requires it to spend 36 percent of its budget on television productions. Thus in 2011, Channel 1 suddenly spent about NIS 73 million on productions, and did so again in 2012. In other words – kicking and screaming, Channel 1 could be entering a new era.

Its new schedule begins on March 1 with a Friday night variety program called Mahar Shabbat, hosted by comedian Yaakov Cohen and actor Shmuel Vilozhny. Later, the schedule will include an ambitious drama called House of Wishes, directed by Haim Bouzaglo, with a cast of 172 actors.

Other programs include a weekly culture program called Hazira, hosted by Gal Uchovsky, and a documentary on environmental issues called Ahareinu Hamabul? (Apres Nous le Deluge?), presented by journalist Rotem Avrutsky.

Another intriguing offering is Shomrei Hasaf (The Gatekeepers) – a television mini-series by Dror Moreh, based on the material from which he made his Oscar-nominated film.

Then there are Nava Semel’s Whereabouts Unknown, about the search for relatives by new immigrants who arrived in Israel in 1949; a cooking program hosted by Chef Victor Gloger, filmed at his restaurant, Chloelys; and a comedy skit shows entitled "The Jews Are Coming" featuring actor Moni Moshonov.

Alongside original local productions will be new offerings such as the British version of Shameless and the third series of Downton Abbey. The new era is also showcased in the award-winning drama series Thirty Shekels Per Hour last year.

This morning, Amir Gilat welcomed the Channel 1 workers at the restaurant and elaborated the goal: to double ratings. To start with.

Unkosher backroom deals?

The station’s new programming manager, Yoav Ginai, is excited. Ginai has been working for years at the IBA, which is the state body in charge of Channel 1 (and the Voice of Israel radio, among other things). He is a popular radio and television personality and songwriter who just won an award from ACUM, the Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel. It's his baby to rebuild the programming schedule.

What should public TV show, anyway? "Culture,"Ginai answers. "A channel like this has to focus on the culture and documentary genres." Commercial channels won't show these because they're income-oriented, he explains: this is the consensus everywhere. "Culture and the documentary genre are the backbone of public broadcasting in the world, and it will be the same for us.”

As Channel 1 struggles to rebuild, it has to find ways to circumvent the bog of bureaucracy. For example, the production and launch of "Thirty Shekels Per Hour" took six years. The series won approval but no budget. “Every year we passed another committee, and another and another," one of its producers commented.

Red tape reigns eternal. At least one other project will be aired this year – several years after it was approved for production.

Also, representatives of the program writers are skeptical, to put it mildly. They want explanations about what the IBA is spending its money on, and will sue for the knowledge, says Uri Rosenwaks, chairman of the Israel Documentary Filmmakers Forum. While he doesn't share the sense among certain filmmakers that deals are based on nepotism or other unkosher things, he does aver that months pass before the IBA so much as comments on proposals submitted in response to the IBA's own solicitation.

Ginai disagrees. “I feel that everybody at the IBA goes beyond the call of duty to get the job done," he says. "I think that to a large extent, people realize it's now or never." Unless the channel becomes more efficient, it will die, he sums up: "I think everybody realizes that."

Getting experimental

The IBA’s budget for 2012 was about NIS 1 billion. One can critique the IBA's spending habits - for example, it spent NIS 7 million on morning programming that was never aired. But one thing is beyond dispute: since Channel 1 doesn't need advertising revenue to survive, its program schedule can constitute a real alternative.

The commercial channels have been in financial straits for past two years. Channel 1 is free of such worries. As shrinking advertising income forces the commercial channels to focus on popular entertainment, Channel 1 can afford to be experimental.

Ginai agrees. “I hope we’ll be able to give the filmmakers freedom to do as they wish. We also have our own requirements and conditions, but we’re much more able to provide an empty sketch pad to color and create in than the other channels are.”

Can you guarantee that it won’t take six years, and that these good intentions will lead somewhere?

“We can guarantee it. It’s already happening. Last year we signed contracts, and this year the emphasis is on high-end drama. There are many projects. We’re working with filmmakers who are adapting literary works, making films based on historical events and working on series for the whole family and programming for adults. We’re moving forward in drama, documentaries, series and films. We’re planning a documentary series about Israeli film and another about Israeli popular music. We’ll have a second season of "Thirty Shekels Per Hour" and "Come Dine with Me". We’re working on a documentary film about S.Y. Agnon and another series in Hebrew and Arabic. We’re on our way.”

Haim Yavin, Israel's Walter Cronkite, the once and indelible face of "Mabat."
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Tomer Appelbaum