Public TV Needs Reform, Not Replacement

The Israeli political leadership must undergo a reckoning of conscience concerning the broadcasting authority, both with regard to the principles that should guide it and the professional quality it must attain.

Once again it seems the hoped-for change at the Israel Broadcast Authority has gotten stuck. After four critical years during which nothing was done − when the Prime Minister’s Office was responsible for the IBA − Communications Minister Gilad Erdan is delaying the final signing of the implementation of the reform.

The television department at the IBA is looking bad. The management structure is clumsy and the financial situation is grim. In fact, ever since its establishment, despite achievements in content ‏(mostly in the distant past‏), it has not been afforded professional management and solutions that would release it from the bureaucracy and the professional sleaze. It seems the main ‏(even if not the only‏) reason for this is the management’s constant need to satisfy the political leadership.

An incurable situation? Every few years Uri Shenar, an experienced veteran in television management, brings up the idea of closing the IBA and establishing a new entity in its stead. He expects the Knesset to legislate, with the flick of a wrist, a law that would close a huge organization and establish a new public authority, an efficient entity that will resemble Britain’s Channel 4 and provide an alternative to the commercial channels’ broadcasts. Indeed, a seductive idea. But Shenar skips over the IBA’s largest problem for many years now − the political leadership’s desire to hold on tightly to it, and to control and prevent it, heaven forbid, from arousing public debate that is too revealing and provocative.

Would a new law, and a structure similar to the British Channel 4 ‏(lean professional management, a mixture of public and commercial funding, in line with the contours of Britain’s media map‏) ensure that the politicians relinquished their grip on state media? Would a new law suddenly make public media the
knights of artistic freedom? Would the management of a new channel be appointed on a professional basis only or, as tradition would have it, on the basis of political interests? The chance of an appointed leadership on a newly mandated public channel allowing independent, professional, courageous and challenging journalistic and cultural programming is slim.

And one more thing: Over the years one of the ills at the IBA has been the unions’ ability to determine policy, paralyze systems and silence creativity, as well as torpedo work with independent producers. Will a new entity be free of unions? What ensures that a new law will make “everything” more efficient and creative? Is the real intention to create an entity that does not recognize workers’ rights at all, including their right to organize? There is great allure in the idea of “abracadabra, we’ll close the old one and open a new one.” But the truth is that there is no chance of making this magic happen.

This is a time of testing for the Knesset and the government − for the new, young and enlightened forces. It is in their hands to decide not only whether rehabilitating the IBA is possible but also, and principally, what kind of broadcasting authority they really want. A reform is a work plan that is supposed to lead to a recovery. The proposed reform is already ‏(almost‏) agreed upon and it doesn’t deserve to be thrown in the trash. It could lead to a more appropriate and efficient structure.

In order to transfer the production of most of the channel’s programs − drama, documentary and also other genres − into the hands of independent producers, there is no need for a new law. It is possible to do this in the near future, along with the rehabilitation and reform of the IBA.

We have been waiting for many years. Now more patience is needed to conduct an orderly process. Creative and professional freedom in broadcasting is a worthy leadership goal. The Israeli political leadership must undergo a reckoning of conscience concerning the broadcasting authority, both with regard to the principles that should guide it and the professional quality it must attain. Such a reckoning does not require new legislation whose direction would be a cause of anxiety.

The author was deputy vice president for content at Telad and Reshet, and is now director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque.