Taking Stock / A Man Named Yossi

"Nobody's investing in Israel, and without investment, there's no chance of growth," declared lawyer Ram Caspi at the emergency conference Israel's business leaders held this week.

His macroeconomic analysis is right on the money. Investments have generally been shrinking from quarter to quarter. The credit crunch combined with dropping revenues in most sectors, and the absence of economic or diplomatic vision, are suppressing whatever desire there might have been to invest so much as a shekel in Israel. Which makes all the more remarkable Yossi Maiman's readiness to infuse millions of dollars a month into a brand-new venture operating in the sector most vulnerable to the domestic recession.

In two lectures delivered in recent months, Maiman tried to convince his audience that Channel 10 is a serious investment based on a real business plan. But his declarations are not compelling. He and the channel's CEO, Modi Friedman, refuse to disclose so much as a syllable about the company's touted business plan. The only thing said so far, by marketing veep Ronen Beraka in an interview to Prime Time magazine, is that Channel 10's revenues are expected to reach $76 million in 2003.

Sounds unrealistic

Beraka's forecast sounds a tad unrealistic, based on the contraction of the advertising market. But even if it proves accurate, the channel's heavy costs would lead it to losses of NIS 150 million, at best, or NIS 250 million, at worst.

In recent years, we've become accustomed to seeing communications companies lose mountains of money. This one is slated to lose a few hundred million shekels in its first years; that doesn't make it a rare bird. But Channel 10 cannot be compared with other communications companies that spiraled into life-threatening losses.

Channel 10 is the only one that set up shop just as the rest of the industry had digested the gravity of the situation. Israel's satellite TV broadcaster Yes, for instance, was born at the peak, when capital was available and investors believed in newfangled business models. But Channel 10 is starting out when optimistic concepts have collapsed.

To continue with Yes as an example, with hindsight, investment in it clearly can't be recouped. At this stage, though, with the company boasting 400,000 subscribers, the investors feel the best option is to inject yet more and lead the company to profitability.

Not so for Channel 10. The monies invested in the last year are down the drain. No assets were created. Here, too, the chance of recouping the tremendous investments made in the last three years look pretty slim.

Saving their loans

Which leads us to another difference between Channel 10 and the rest of those bleeding communications companies. Most of their losses were financed by the banks, which only started tightening their fists a year ago. But Channel 10 joined the media party late, after the marketplace was already mired in recession. The banks had no chance to step into the mud with massive loans to the new channel, and therefore have no incentive to step in and save it, in order to protect earlier loans, as they are doing with the other companies that borrowed money during the boom.

The upshot is that the entire weight of Channel 10, including its frightening losses, is resting on the shoulders of one man, a man named Yossi Maiman. Few know how he made his money, where he did it, or mainly, how much he has. But the months to come may give us some indication of how deep his pocket is, according to the degree of pressure he exerts on Channel 10's other shareholders and the terms he offers them.

The TV industry desperately hopes that the advent of a second commercial TV station in Israel, as Channel 10 competes with Channel Two, will increase the advertising pie. But it seems clear enough that Channel 10's gains will be at the expense of Channel Two. When we factor in the rising price of content and wages to television stars, we realize that Channel Two is also fated to start losing money, after seven fat years.

The battle between Channel Two and Channel 10 isn't one of well-groomed star quality, it's Yossi Maiman versus eight of the most influential business groups in Israel, which control Channel Two: Mozes, Hamburger, Strauss, Bino, Nimrodi, Wertheim, Fishman and Gaon.

Good for everybody

The good news is that the battle will do some good, mainly to the marketplace. Unless, that is, the regulators capitulate to the titans and offer them profligate breaks to alleviate their exasperation at the onset of competition.

Channel 10's growing strength will introduce fierce competition into the advertising and content sectors. It may also improve the products, or at least the variety. The last week of Channel 10's renewed launch proved that it can do it, at least as far as news is concerned.

Anybody fearing that Maiman would try to influence content and restore his investment through circuitous means forgets that, in any case, Israel's press and television are controlled by a handful of families, who aren't shy about wielding their clout to advance their business concerns.

The more channels and media outlets there are, the less clout each of the titans has to brandish, and the better it is for us all. And if there's a unyielding entrepreneur like Yossi Maiman who's willing to finance the whole folly by his lonesome - then all that remains is for us to shake his hand, and hope he doesn't lose his optimism.