Screw the Ratings

Channel 10's Friday newscasters don't intend to change their opinionated, personalized style, even if it drives viewers to the rival station.

Channel 10 has been working hard to boost its weekend popularity, only to run repeatedly into the pleased smiles of its Channel 2 rivals, who win the battle over viewers while hardly breaking a sweat. And now, the competition is about to get even fiercer. In the last year and a half, Channel 10's "Friday with Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelach" has raised its average ratings from 2 percent to around 7 percent, compared to the 20 percent of Channel 2's Friday News. But in two weeks, Channel 2 will bring in Yair Lapid as a news host, airing at the same time as Drucker and Shelach's program, followed by "Grease: Auditions." Channel 10's small accomplishment, therefore, may now be in jeopardy.

In light of all this, one might have expected Drucker and Shelach to be doing everything possible to increase their slice of the ratings pie. But a visit to their set last week suggested that the two intend to persist in their opinionated anchoring style and to continue dealing only with issues they find interesting, without giving too much thought to their popularity.

A few hours before airtime, Drucker and Shelach were in one of the editing rooms, reviewing a story about animal testing at the Weizmann Institute of Science (following an expose that had appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth).

"I'm a little worried about this story," Drucker admitted. "Friday evening is family viewing time. Little kids will see the harsh images from the experiments, and I don't feel comfortable with that. Besides, this is the moment when viewers are liable to leave us and switch to Channel 2." Shelach nodded, and then shrugged. Clearly, the story would be aired, despite their concern and unease.

"One of the main reasons why I am in the media is that it gives me freedom," Shelach explains. "Commercial television operates within its own limitations, which block freedom - but that is what generates those ratings everyone talks about. I've seen good, talented people who are positively paralyzed by this. They stop being themselves and make decisions before this big white elephant in the room. I won't deny that I hope to have this white elephant, ratings, come our way, too, although I am not sure: When Channel 2 schedules monsters like 'A Wonderful Country' and 'Born to Dance' opposite us, pulling away viewers during the last 15 minutes of the show, we fall into the channel's black hole, and we all know it.

"When you view yourself through the number you read the morning after the show, it's not you anymore, it's the number. I am old enough to understand that all kinds of things happen to people in life, and I hope it won't happen to me, but if tomorrow the show or Channel 10 were to shut down, I would still ask myself where I stood, and not where the ratings stood."

Drucker's attitude is similar: "Even if it is bad marketing, I can't be Ya'akov Eilon. I can't read a news item without saying what I think about it. I try to rein in these opinions, but clearly our show is infected with our opinions, and that's a conscious thing. As a viewer, I might not like our style, which is direct, a bit condescending and smug. To me, the greatest problem in news and current events is the enormous level of viewer fatigue, and this way I also break through it. Shooting from the hip forces the viewer to listen to me."

Other media professionals agree with Drucker's self-criticism, arguing that the show's ratings often are harmed by the blunt style of its presenters.

"I would have trouble firing off opinions this way, because I know it would make me lose certain audiences," admits one news anchorman. "I watch them and I like to hear what they say, but to adopt this as a permanent concept for the Friday night news is a risk, albeit a calculated one."

Still, the anchor also stresses the other side of the issue: "Drucker and Shelach may not be moving up the ratings chart, and they keep taking hits for their candor, boldness and bluntness, but time will tell who is right. People look only at the number itself, which is 7-8 percent, but they don't consider the fact that reaching this in only one year is a huge leap."

Channel 2 Friday News anchor Aharon Barnea refuses to get worked up about Drucker and Shelach's ratings bump, however. "Do you know what they would do to me on Channel 2 if I brought in ratings of 6 percent, or even 8 percent?" he asks. "They'd throw me and my editors out that day. I've seen their show a few times, and it was enough, because I got the idea and it didn't draw me in.

"Ultimately, ratings don't lie. I don't understand the secret of ratings any better than anybody else, but I do know that last Friday, we got more than 20 percent, and they got a bit over 6 percent, which is nowhere near the middle. Young Israelis are not stupid, they know what they should be watching."

Executive backing

In all likelihood, Drucker and Shelach could not be so blase about ratings without the full backing of Channel 10 News Company's CEO and chief editor, Gilad Adin. While Channel 2 officials have never denied that ratings are their primary concern, Adin stood his ground and refused to align himself with his opponents' attitude. With an annual budget of only NIS 55 million - compared to the Channel 2 News Company's NIS 90 million, and considering that news is Channel 10's flagship - this is a real risk.

"It is not a trivial matter to bring in two journalists who are not anchors," Adin told TheMarker Week a few months ago. "I wanted both of them to shatter common conceptions. Ofer and Raviv are both opinionated, they are pundits, and their format is not that of a news show, but of a weekend magazine. They sit on the set, look straight ahead and fearlessly grade anyone they want, including the prime minister.

"Where else do you have something like that? Even I was surprised by their ratings bump, because this was not my goal to begin with, and I assumed all along that we would lose large parts of the audience. That's what happens when you bring to television something that resembles a newspaper op-ed. But it's more important to me to be distinctive than to be popular."

Shelach, 48, began his journalistic career in the Maariv sports section, as a reporter and assistant editor. In 2000 he moved to Yedioth Ahronoth, and in 2007 he returned to Maariv after Yedioth refused to let him anchor "Friday" while working at the paper.

He writes for the men's magazine Blazer, and is a senior basketball commentator on the Sports Channel, where he also hosts the show "The Starting 5s" with Aviv Lavie and Simi Rieger. In between he has managed to publish a few books sharply criticizing the Israel Defense Forces and the political leadership.

Drucker, 37, also started out at Maariv, going from real-estate reporter to political correspondent. He also held the latter position on Army Radio, and in 2003 was chosen to be Channel 10's political pundit. In early 2006 he began to host "Friday."

Shelach and Drucker have been collaborating for many years. Among other things, they spent three years writing "Boomerang," a book criticizing the conduct of the Israeli leadership during the second intifada.

"We're happy together. Everything else, including ratings, is marginal," says Shelach. "In the end you have to get up in the morning and go do something you really like to do, and I have the luxury of being in such a place and even making a good living off of it. What more could I want? Considering the work that went into 'Boomerang,' the profit we made from it was not even close to minimum wage. But I spent three wonderful, challenging years with a man whom I found incredibly enjoyable to work with.

"I never once got up and said to myself, 'Damn - him again?' Within the limitations of the conventional, in a world that doesn't behave exactly as I would like it to, we have our own show and bring ourselves to it, and we're happy that way. I treat myself honestly, and that is what matters."

But this attitude costs you viewers, as well as potential interviewees.

Shelach: "True, and it's a dilemma, but it's hard for us to free ourselves of our personalities. Even when we're trying to get an interview with someone, we end up hitting him with our spur-of-the-moment comments. We have that kind of 'in-your-face' instinct of completely detaching from our interviewees' need to present things as they would like them to be presented, versus our independent views.

"While we were fighting to get an interview with [Transportation Minister] Shaul Mofaz, we made some unpleasant comments about him, and he still appeared on the show. We know what we're like. We are an innovative, less comfortable platform, but we always give the interviewee a chance to comment on anything we say against him. We are known as people for whom nothing is sacred - and quite a few people want to go head-to-head with us, for that very reason.

"At the same time, the genre has its own rules. When you work in commercial television you can't go too far, and we tried to. That's why the show went through some turmoil and we softened ourselves a bit, and ultimately we exceeded what Channel 10 initially expected of us. And I'm not praising Raviv or myself here, because after all, we are influenced by what is broadcast before and after we are on the air."

Drucker: "When we started out, we didn't have a clear idea of the format for the show, and we only gradually infused it with content. At first we sat on the set in T-shirts, and now look at our jackets and ties. It's all dignified and serious." Shelach is quick with a retort: "Wait till you see Yair Lapid's jacket. He bought it in Paris, hell of a brand name."

Friends and competitors

Shelach did not get the information about Lapid's suit through a spy on Channel 2; he and Lapid simply are good friends. He claims that their new professional rivalry will not cast a shadow on their relationship.

"Yair told me about his decision to join the Friday News before he told the rest of the world," he says. "During the first minute, I treated it as I would any other case where a friend told me of his plans and asked for my opinion, but then I suddenly wondered what would happen to us as a result.

"I encouraged him, and I know he is a popular, talented man. This is something our show will have to confront, and I still don't know what it means. But I can't imagine that I would ever quarrel with Yair over the Friday News.

"It is inconceivable, after all, that I would want him to fail so that I could succeed. And if Raviv someday made a decision that had to do with his personal future, and that decision got in the way of our working together, so what? I love him because he is Raviv Drucker, because he is a guy worth loving, and that will always come first."

Lapid will also make more than you - by some estimates, he will be getting $9,000 a show. How important is money to you?

Drucker: "It's a tough question, because if there is any stance I hate, it's that of the guy who makes millions but says he is outraged that there is no money to pay the staff. In this case I am the 'talent' who gets a lot of money, and I insist on it, because I am not a philanthropist.

"But how do you measure how much you should get? On one hand I'm inclined to work for whomever is willing to pay me, but I also think about where journalism in general is going, and news in particular. I've been in the media for 12 years and I never had anything handed to me. I'm not a fashion model and my dad doesn't work in the media. I started out as a real-estate reporter for Maariv, and maybe I'm getting paid more than I deserve, but I don't feel the need to apologize."