This Revolution Will Be Televised

The state committee wanted to have it all: to create up a commercial television channel that would sell advertising and not be a burden on the national budget; to force it to broadcast quality programming; to give a significant voice to Israel's periphery; to demand high fees from the concessionaires for the right to broadcast; and also to obligate the channel to acquire a decent number of local productions - dramas and documentaries - that would provide work for producers, screenwriters and videographers, so everyone would be happy.

The only problem was that even the highest of high-milk cow only yields so much, and when she runs dry the entire utopian model collapses. That is what is happening now.

To determine which concessionaire was deserving of the goose that lays the golden eggs (as the thinking was at the time), the Second Authority for Radio and Television held a beauty contest. First, it spelled out, in documents running to hundreds of pages, its terrifying threshold terms - how much money and time to allocate to each genre, each documentary or category of elite programming - even the minimum per-hour labor cost. Because that's how a bureaucracy works best. It wants to determine everything and even believes that this will work.

The groups that bid for the tender happily participated in this "Isra-bluff." Each one drafted 12 thick volumes with endless obligations to provide culture, music, dance and theater programs, with special emphasis on inclusion of the periphery - because that is what the good committee members wanted to hear. And those who promised the most won the beauty contest.

But it did not take long before it became clear that promises were one thing and actions another. The concessionaires began to lag behind in their commitments. Channel 10 (which has been losing money since its inception seven years ago) went from being in arrears to actually violating its contract. Instead of quality programming it began focusing on reality shows: Israeli versions of "Survivor", "Next Top Model" and "The Biggest Loser" - and that is the direction Channel 2 is taking, too. They are simply trying to survive.

In addition, the state created a monster in the form of the Second Authority, with a NIS 70 million annual budget and 60 employees. True, some of this budget goes toward the operation of 15 transmitters, but a very considerable part goes to advertising and PR, unnecessary independent productions and the oversized staff. Because when the law stipulates that Channel 2 and Channel 10, must pay four percent of their advertising revenues to the Second Authority, for franchise and royalty fees, the authority can continue to party.

Today, everyone has complaints and counter-complaints. Channel 2 says it is discriminated against because Channel 10 is getting let off the hook, and that therefore it should not be fined for failing to meeting its commitments. Former Channel 2 franchisee Telad complains that the two remaining concessionaires should not be let off the hook because the Second Authority forced it to shut down and fire hundreds of employees by accepting the empty proposals of Keshet and Reshet. The Hot and Yes cable and satellite operators are demanding the same benefits as Channel 10, because 2009 will be a difficult year for multi-channel television also.

In other words, the franchising system has failed. Several politicians and their appointees made themselves cultural commissars. They wanted to decide for the public how many commercial channels there should be, what would be broadcast on them at any given moment and at what cost, and they set up an exaggerated and distorted regulatory mechanism. We're lucky they don't control the press the same way. But really, why should anyone be surprised? That is what always happens when a government committee is formed to design a horse, and instead creates a camel.

The concessionary system should be replaced with a licensing system, with a much smaller group of criteria to meet. Anyone who wants to set up a commercial channel would be able to get a license, at a reasonable price. The operators will be obligated to meet certain simple regulatory rules and to provide a modest amount of quality programming. This will result in the creation of a number of commercial channels that will compete among themselves, rather than two monopolistic channels.

This revolution can be carried out in 2011, when television broadcasts will go from analog to digital, thus removing technical obstructions to broadcasting a large number of channels. Two years to go: Get ready to televise the revolution.