Unreality TV

What do the two most talked-about events on television have in common?

Both are hyped, pompous to the point of absurdity, marketed as "events of national importance." Both have the public and TV industry glued to their screens - and both rely on the concept that PR is everything, reality is dull as dishwater, and the only question is, "How do I come across?"

One is, of course, "The Ambassador," Keshet's blockbuster winter hit on Channel 2. The other is the tender to operate the channel going forward, which should wind up in March, and which has hordes of PR people, lobbyists, account executives and journalists occupied full time.

It was rather sad to see our front page sporting the portrait of Eytan Schwartz, with the headline: He's the ambassador. Throughout the history of Israel and Haaretz, few real ambassadors have achieved front-page status, complete with picture. Schwartz is not even a true representative of the State of Israel, he's the star of a TV show that's light on substance and heavy on style.

One can understand the editors, who have to watch ratings. Even if many of their faithful readers felt burning contempt for the show, they know that many were among the 1.3 million who tuned into the last episode on Sunday night.

The Hebrew edition of Haaretz came up a solution, to run Schwartz's picture with a snide caption: "The most irritating thing about `The Ambassador' was the attempt to present the show as a national enterprise, although Keshet's purpose was purely commercial."

Playing the tender game

It's the same story with the Channel 2 tender. The contenders have an interest in presenting it as a national event, while in actuality it's a purely economic tender with no real impact on the nature of television or culture in Israel.

Anybody expecting dramatic change in television, culture or public debate after the Channel 2 tender is in for a disappointment. The only change will be in the makeup of the shareholders in commercial television.

The winner will adhere religiously to the formula: Game shows, competitions, sports, models, sensation disguised as investigative journalism. If it works, it works.

Don't the franchisees and the regulators know this? Of course they do, and even though the press paints them as the bitterest of adversaries, the truth is they live in blissful symbiosis.

The prospective franchisees submit bids for Channel 2, knowing they won't have to fulfill the conditions. The day after the tender, everything will change. Note that after eleven years of violating the terms of the original tender, all three original franchisees get to bid again.

The members of the Second Broadcasting Authority Council also know the winners won't comply with the tender's terms, but that's fine with them. The SBA won't be complying with the terms either. The tender explicitly states that the authority has the right to change the terms of the franchises as it pleases.

What the franchisees stand to gain is clear: Profit for shareholders and attractive jobs for managers in the entertainment business. The SBA's gain is equally clear: It has the power, managers and franchisees bow before its might, politicians gain access to the screen and to the rich. Everybody's happy.

New players

So maybe we don't need the tender at all?

Yes, we do. The biggest achievement of the Channel 2 tender is that it's taking place at all.

The usual method in Israel is for the people with power, money and control of the media to simply disregard the law. Franchises are extended in perpetuity, licenses are renewed without thought, even if the holder openly violates their terms. In short, nobody takes candy away from the truly powerful.

The Channel 2 tender may yet shatter this system. It may allow new players into the game for the first time, forcing others out and refreshing the makeup of shareholders in the channel. The losers may simply pledge allegiance to the winning groups or to Channel 10, but this will be under the terms of the free market, not via a license from the state, a minister or some party hack.

There will be one other little change: A whole bunch of TV managers who've been sitting on their backsides for too long will lose their jobs. The public couldn't care less about this, of course. But at the end of the day, make no mistake, that's the only reason the tender has been arousing so much interest in the media and business sectors.