Opinion |

Will Anyone Stand Up for the Israeli Couch Potato, or Are We Doomed to Bibi TV?

We deserve an Israeli BBC but the rights of the average Yossi to good television aren't even on the agenda.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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With a three-week delay while a committee examines the issue, Bibi has staged another tactical retreat in his campaign to close down the new public broadcasting corporation, Kan. Illustration shows the PM sitting in a TV studio controlling multiple channels, all showing - him.
That's not kicking and screaming, that's the PM's cries of victory in the battle over public broadcasting in Israel.Credit: Eran Wolkowsky
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

With a three-week delay while a committee examines the issue, Bibi has staged another tactical retreat in his campaign to close down the new public broadcasting corporation, which is supposed to replace the bloated, moribund Israel Broadcasting Authority.

But his setback is nothing for proponents of free speech to cheer about.

Netanyahu is fighting a war of attrition against an enemy that can’t hold as a long as he can. What can the putative broadcast corporation do to defend itself when it has no real allies, and is under constant fire from a prime minister driven by fear and paranoia?

The prime minister’s kicking-and-screaming tactics are really cries of victory. The corporation can’t ready itself to begin broadcast on January 1 as promised if its very existence is in doubt.

It seems almost inevitable now that the corporation will be killed off and the Israel Broadcasting Authority, with its fat salaries, incompetent and politicized management, and paucity of viewers, will be brought back from the dead.

And here is the tally of winners and losers. The winners are Bibi, several hundred IBA employees and Histradrut leader Avi Nissenkorn. The losers are the eight million other people who live in Israel because there is absolutely no public interest in keeping the IBA alive.

As the committee that two years ago recommending shutting it concluded, the authority is something that modern reform medicine can’t cure.

The Old Bibi would have hated it

The IBA is everything the Old Bibi hated – a bloated public sector body that has no place in dynamic, free-market Israel.

The Old Bibi would have been proud that the government won a rare victory over a powerful public sector union and was embarking on a long- overdue restructuring.

The Old Bibi would have been angry that the broadcast corporation, named Kan, spent a lot of time and money getting up and running, hiring employees, building facilities and contracting for programming, all of which will be money down the budget drain if it is shuttered.

The New Bibi could care less about any of this. The New Bibi is obsessed with staying in power and seeing off threats everywhere from the Obama White House to his Likud colleagues.

Kan is an enemy – needless to say, an imagined one since it hasn’t gone on the air yet – and therefore it must go, period, just like Obama should have in 2012 and Yair Lapid did in 2014. There’s no national interest in this, just a Netanyahu interest.

Suckered into war

Unfortunately, Kan’s allies got suckered into a war over two things that were not the core issue, and which guaranteed they would lose the fight.

One was about money. Unfortunately, that is the battle that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon chose to fight. That opened the door to a twilight zone of ridiculous estimates about how much the new corporation Kan would cost taxpayers versus the IBA, and a supposed agreement with IBA unions for wage and hiring cuts that nobody in their right mind thinks will ever be implemented.

But by making it into a money issue, Kahlon will be able to stand down in three weeks when the committee formed Wednesday presents numbers manufactured from the fudge works, showing that the IBA can be cost–effective after all.

The other talking point was about political interference in broadcast news. That at least has some basis in reality.

Netanyahu is certainly not interested in an “independent” news outlet, which everyone understands to mean a leftist thorn in the prime minister’s side. But by making the issue into a political one, Kan’s allies ensured that the right would line up against it.

In all events, the political argument misses the main point, which is that Israeli viewers and listeners deserve better programing than they get right now. Side by side with the diet of reality programming that compromises the prime time schedule of most commercial TV, it would benefit Israelis and the country’s creative community to have public television on par with the BBC and PBS. That would justify spending hundreds of millions annually on public television.

Will anyone stand up for the ordinary Israeli couch potato? Unlikely. Kan could have improved our quality of life a little bit, but public broadcasting doesn’t play into any fears or prejudices, so there’s no political hay to be made of it.

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