Taking Stock / Whining for More

Encouraged by the success of previous terror and obfuscation campaigns, the managers of Channel Two's franchisees, Uri Shenar and Uzi Peled, have set out on another intimidation mission. The goal - to blast the competition off the map, or to get their franchises extended indefinitely.

In case you neglected to diligently follow the soap "Whining for Dollars", let us recap the last episodes for you.

Episode 996: Terror

As rival commercial station Channel 10 geared up to hit the airwaves, the three Channel Two franchisees - Keshet, Reshet and Telad - kicked off a terror campaign, claiming the advent of competition would drive Channel Two into bankruptcy, sound the death knell for the entire television industry and, ultimately, obliterate culture in Israel.

The campaign's real goal was not to save Israel's imperiled culture, but to get their franchises extended beyond their deadline of November 2003. To conceal their real purpose, the franchisees managed, with the help of friends in the Knesset and government - Avraham Poraz and Reuven Rivlin - to package the franchise extension under the slogan "transition to licensing".

Replacing franchises with licenses sounds like a good move, but it is an empty shell. There is practically zero chance of any new broadcast channels rising to their feet to compete with Channel Two. The sole consequence of the legislative amendment was to extend the three franchisees' franchises by two more years.

Episode 997: Survival

Channel 10 started to broadcast and, lo and behold, the Channel Two franchisees did not go broke, the quality of broadcasts did not change, Israeli culture did not shrivel up and die, and Dudu Topaz remained Dudu Topaz.

The only thing that happened was the advent of healthy competition over viewers, advertisers, content producers and other suppliers. The franchisees' managements had to learn to contend with competition, which was a lot less amusing than running a monopoly.

Not only that, but after 10 years of Channel Two's monopolistic sway, it transpired that introducing competition was almost impossible.

Channel 10's key shareholder, Yossi Maiman, poured tens of millions of dollars into the station, but couldn't change viewing habits built up over a decade. Sick of the cash bleed and paltry results, and unable to recruit new partners, Maiman cut off funding and Channel 10 started to flounder and founder.

Episode 998: Attack of the watchdog

Lacking alternatives, the regulators were forced to intervene. A panel headed by the prime minister's director-general, Avigdor Yitzhaki, agreed to reduce Channel 10's mandatory investment in original content.

Naturally, the rules governing Channel Two productions were also relaxed in parallel, even though the original commercial station was in far better condition than its fledgling adversary.

In any case, the recommendations of the Yitzhaki panel give rise to the possibility of fresh investment in Channel 10, and a resumption of competition with Channel Two. And the moment the Channel Two franchisees realized this, they launched Terror Campaign 2.

Episode 999: Lost in fog

Again, their slogans touch on original content and productions. Uri Shenar, president of Keshet, started marketing a new story - that a new tender couldn't possibly be published for Channel Two next year because if the franchisees cannot see the long-term, they cannot invest in programming.

The ministerial committee's acceptance of the Yitzhaki panel's recommendations will create a fog of uncertainty over the television industry, Shenar claims. "As long as they do not know whether they will continue operating the channel, the franchisees will stop producing new programs," he said. "Workers won't know whether they'll keep their jobs at the united company [to be created by a merger of the three franchisees], or be fired."

We are to understand that we can never end the Channel Two franchises because the franchisees would be paralyzed throughout the period before the expiry.

However absurd this claim may sound, it found sympathetic ears in the Knesset. It may be due to the newspapers' involvement in the franchisees, or to the franchisees' lobbyists, or to parliamentarians and certain journalists pandering to the controllers of the Great Screen. Whatever the reason, what's certain is that the franchisees almost always get what they want from the Knesset.

The sharp of eye and keen of ear claimed last week that Channel Two's lobbyists in the Knesset and elsewhere do not necessarily serve the best interests of all the franchisees' shareholders. People closely tracking this lobby discover that it has one main item on its agenda - to preserve the jobs of the existing franchisees' top people.

For example, some people at the franchisees would like to see the three companies, Telad, Reshet and Keshet, merge into a single entity that would tackle Channel 10 with all its united might. But the leaders of the franchisees each prefer to sustain their own independent empires.

Whether they best serve the shareholders or the franchisees' CEOs, it's time to put an end to the unending saga of the Channel Two franchises. Gentlemen, you received a franchise for 10 years; you made a lot of money; you made your contribution to society; and you just got two more years. Now, it's time to go.