Israeli TV Viewing: From a Communal Pastime to a Reflection of a Fragmented World

Gone are the days of television functioning as a force for social unity.

Members of Kibbutz Nir Am watch television for the first time in 1968.
Kibbutz Nir Am Archive / PikiWiki website

My story is much too sad to be told, but practically everything leaves me totally cold. The only exception I know is the case, when I’m out on a quiet spree, fighting vainly the old ennui, when suddenly I turn and see

Where I go on humming Cole Porter lyrics, at this point I would be seeing “your fabulous face.” Things being how they are, what I’m seeing, nine times out of ten, is the top of your head, with the face – its fabulousness in the eye of the beholder – unseen by me, as its eyes (the windows to its soul) looking down at a small screen held by a pair of no less fabulous hands, the fingers of which are texting, or touching the screen to have it stream an episode of a TV series you are currently following, concurrently with your walking toward me, and almost bumping into me.

I did get my kicks, though, on Route 66. Being 66 – that is, two years younger than this state of ours, Israel – I cannot claim that I’m older than TV itself; the first regular broadcasts started in the 1930s. And yet, in my short life I still remember the first TV screen I saw, in 1957, in Warsaw, Poland. It was in the flat of our neighbors, more affluent than we, and it was black and white. I even remember the flickering image on the screen: It was a helicopter hovering in the air, as seen from below.

My next 11 years were TV-less, and truth be told, I don’t remember them as lacking “that special something.” On the contrary: While all the world (OK, not the whole world, the U.S., which was at that time all the world that mattered) was glued to the small screen following the news of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, my left ear was glued to the little portable radio receiver in my hand, the words whispered in my ears adding a whiff of romance to the unfolding tragedy.

My eyes were glued to the screen – along with those of my family and practically all Israelis who had the means to acquire a TV set in time – on May 2, 1968, (48 years ago last week). That was the date of the inaugural live broadcast of Channel One, of the state-owned Israel Broadcasting Authority (being disbanded as I write this column). It brought to my room, in black and white, the Independence Day military parade held that year in reunited Jerusalem, the first of the 49 years, so far, of the Israeli occupation of Judea and Samaria (aka Liberation of the Land of our Forefathers) .

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1969, Israeli TV Channel One started broadcasting on the Sabbath as well (contrary to the demands of the religious parties and following a decision by the High Court of Justice). In 1979 Israel TV switched from being exclusively black and white to flying colors. I know it sounds crazy, but for quite a while, Channel One was “erasing” colors, even from live newscasts: When PM Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat got their joint Nobel Peace Prize, we saw it in black and white. By the end of the 1980s we got Channel Two, and then the TV cable and satellite providers HOT and Yes, with their multiple choice of channels, and then Channel 10.

My point, in this capsule personal history of Israeli TV, is to highlight the fact that for about quarter of a century, Israeli TV was a communal pastime. Reading a book or seeing a painting are solitary ways of filling your leisure time with “purposiveness without purpose” (to quite Kant about art). The performing arts do the same, but with a bunch of other people, most of them unknown to you, in a particular place at a particular time. But TV viewing was something in-between: You did it in your own home, more often than not with other people (family or friends), yet most of the viewers were watching the same program at the same time. For almost 20 years we had only one TV channel in Israel. For almost every program the ratings hit the roof, as there was nothing else to watch.

Forging a common ethos

Those were the days when the idea of the TV column was born; each newspaper in Israel felt duty-bound to appoint a TV reviewer. As opposed to book reviews (in the literary section) or theater and movie reviews, written and printed following an opening night, TV reviews became a daily chore. It served a very important purpose in a society still forging a common ethos. After watching the only TV program there was – the main offering at prime time of the only channel – you would open the newspaper of your choice the next morning, expecting the TV reviewer to reaffirm that you had actually seen what you’d seen on your little screen the evening before. TV programs and their reviews were thus creating a “common viewer” (the counterpart of the “common reader” Virginia Woolf was writing about), and solidifying a unifying “consensus” of a relatively young society.

That, as we know, is no longer the case. Rarely, if ever, is a TV program watched by everyone (OK, “Big Brother,” “Master Chef,” and “The Voice,” granted). The TV column, more often than not, is an opinion piece, with the reviewer or columnist – like yours truly – using any TV program of his choice on which to hook his musings about many and varied subjects.

So, what is TV viewing at this point? It means passing the time not reading words, but seeing images, being ready at any time to switch one’s attention from one succession of images (say, an episode in one of many TV series) to another (following breaking news, or answering e-mails, or texting). It is a fragmented reflection of a fragmented world in a – you’ve guessed it – fragmented mind.

And the only thing TV columnists can try to do is – not pretend that they can make any sense out of those puzzle pieces.