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Israel Society & Culture: Israeli Television and the National Agenda

by Yuval Elizer

The year 1994 marked a revolution in Israel television viewing. After more than a quarter of a century in which Israelis had to make do with a single channel broadcasting seven hours a day, they are now offered a rich choice of 40 channels in more than dozen languages. The state-owned Channel One must now share its influence with two high-powered competitors: the commercial Channel Two and cable-TV which, during 1994, penetrated a considerable portion of the national market.

Following seemingly endless deferrals, undoubtedly due in part to delaying tactics engineered by the chiefs of state television, Channel Two, a commercial station, finally began broadcasting in November 1993. The catalytic effect of the new competition was not unrelated to the fact that 1994 was also the year when the cable television companies finished installing the infrastructure enabling about 90 percent of the country's households to receive their broadcasts, if they so wish. (All that remain are some sparsely-populated areas for which special technical solutions need to be found.)

By mid-1994, some 720,000 Israeli households were able to receive cable television. The average penetration rate of the cable companies is 60 percent; in some areas, such as north Tel Aviv, Holon, Bat Yam, and Givatayim, it exceeds 70 percent. The profound impact of these developments on leisure culture and, some would say, on national solidarity and "participatory democracy" in Israel, is already discernible.

The Israeli public's passion for television has been confirmed statistically. A study of leisure culture in Israel conducted in the early l99Os showed that Israelis spend about half of their free time in front of the box. This is more, albeit not much more, than the average rate in western countries. An earlier survey, conducted in November 1987, in the midst of a lengthy strike by workers of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, (IBA), found that on an average weekday, 87 percent of the public watched television. Approximately 75 percent watched the major evening newscast "Mabat" ("Outlook") every day. By comparison, 80 percent of the public listened to the radio on any given day - despite the low cost of radios and the possibility of listening in while doing something else, such as driving or at work.

The 1987 study, conducted by the Gutmann Institute for Applied Social Research, also found that despite the alternatives to Channel One that were then already available (experimental broadcasts by Channel Two, foreign stations, and the first cable broadcasts), 21 percent of those polled said that the strike "definitely bothers them," 60 percent said that during the strike the public did "not have enough information about events," and 57 percent agreed that "there is not enough scrutiny of the government" because of the strike.

But the lean years are over. Israeli television aficionados can now choose from one of the richest selections of programs available anywhere. In the past, viewers had few options. If they were unhappy with the programs offered during the seven hours of broadcasts by the single state-operated channel, they could, given the right aerial, turn to the neighboring Arabic stations or the English-language programs available on Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, or south Lebanon.

Today there are two competing Israeli channels, each of which is on the air for about nine or ten hours daily, including the previously sacrosanct daytime hours of Saturday. Each channel has its own news department and each broadcasts its major newscast at eight PM. The competition is also felt keenly in the number of original programs being offered by the two channels. Anyone still not satisfied can, if he subscribes to one of the cable companies, choose from among more than 40 other channels broadcasting in English, Russian, German, Turkish, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi and Italian, besides special channels for children, sports fans, pop music addicts, nature lovers, and a family channel and movie channel.

Still, not everyone welcomes the television revolution. Some lament that the nature of the programming and the commercial advertising, have impoverished television as a social-educational tool. The present situation, they say, recalls the situation 30-40 years ago, when David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and many others, intellectuals and practitioners alike, decried what they perceived as the pernicious impact television was bound to have on the Israeli society and economy.

One of the skeptics is Professor Elihu Katz, who as the head of Israel Television's founding team, shaped and guided state television during its first 20 months of existence, from July 1967 until March 1969. Katz fears that the proliferation of channels means that television will lose its "agenda setting" role. No longer will it be able to exercise a unifying influence or concentrate the public's interest around national goals.

When 60 percent and more of all Israelis tuned into the "Mabat" newscast every evening, many actually disconnecting their telephone so they would not be disturbed, and when a high percentage unfailingly watched the weekly political interview program "Moked", ("Focus,") the topics these programs addressed became pivotal in the national discourse. People watched "Mabat" not only to learn about the day's events but also so they would feel "in" at Friday night social get-togethers or in conversation with their colleagues at work. Not everyone shares Prof. Katz's pessimism. Others argue that a single channel and one newscast held out the potential danger of "brainwashing," whereas a broad choice of programs means a plurality of opinions and approaches, Katz disagrees. Studies show, he maintains, that television does not change opinions but simply furnishes material for thought and debate. Participatory democracy requires the creation of common platforms for discussion, but if there is a plethora of platforms the citizen finds it difficult to engage in a dialogue on the same terms with his family, friends, and colleagues.

Prof. Katz is convinced that fewer people will watch the two newscasts than watched "Mabat" when it was the exclusive source of television news. Many Israelis, he believes, will feel that they are exempt from taking part in the daily "civics hour," and this could have a deleterious effect. Others believe that, overall, Israel will gain from a decline in the obsessive television rate of viewing that has characterized the country up until now.

Television came so late to Israel because of weighty economic and social considerations. Ben-Gurion adamantly opposed its introduction, despite the recommendations of a committee that he himself set up in 1951. He disliked the entertainment component of television and feared that it would stimulate materialism and rampant private consumption among the country's youth. Levi Eshkol, the minister of finance, thought that because television would inevitably promote a higher living standard, it should be kept out of Israel indefinitely.

Such attitudes, we should remember, were the conventional wisdom during the austerity regime of the early 1950s and later, when even a refrigerator was considered a luxury item that should be taxed to the hilt. Television, it was believed, would inevitably cause waste in two areas: foreign currency would be required to purchase hundreds of thousands of sets, and an atmosphere of unrestrained consumerism would be generated even if advertising were prohibited.

Opposition also came from Orthodox Jewish circles. Television would show women in "immodest" dress and broadcast entertainment of a kind incompatible with Jewish morality. Even today, decades after the mass arrival of television in Israel, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox households refuse to countenance it. When Rabbi Shmuel Pinhasi, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was appointed minister of communications, he refused categorically to accept responsibility for television, nor did he own a set.

Religious circles waged an even more bitter struggle against the introduction of television broadcasts on the Sabbath. In the early days of Israel Television, the IBA tended to accept their demand for a Sabbath blackout. However, with the backing of the Supreme Court, the IBA decided, against the will of Prime Minister Golda Meir, not to stop broadcasts on Friday evenings (the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath) . Since the principle of status quo rules in all matters of religion in Israel, television has broadcast seven days a week since then, emulating radio, for which a similar status quo existed from the days the British mandate.

Television in Israel always had its supporters as well as its detractors. Politicians, journalists, and many educators urged its introduction even on a controlled basis. In 1955, another public committee again recommended that television be introduced in Israel. Over the years, the Israeli authorities also consulted three international bodies UNESCO, the European Broadcasting Union, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The experts were unanimous: television should be introduced in Israel as soon as Possible. During the recession that preceded the Six-Day War, with economic growth at a standstill, the debate about television faded, awaiting better days to reappear on the public agenda.

It was almost by accident that Prof. Katz played such an influential role in the formative stage of Israel Television. A few weeks before the Six-Day War of June 1967, he and the late Prof. Louis Gutmann, the founder of the social-research institute that bears his name, sent a memorandum to Israel Galili, the minister in charge of the government's information apparatus. It was the time of the tense waiting period as the war clouds gathered, and the two social scientists proposed that they examine the level of public morale and the public's staying power.

Katz, a professor of sociology and a founder of the Hebrew University's Institute of Communications, told Galili that the Israel government, lacking an influential medium like television to get its message across, was in an inferior position in the battle for public opinion both at home and in the neighboring countries. In the Arab states, television was already popular. In Israel, at the time, some 30,000 households already owned television sets and could watch the Arab channels. Many of the sets were owned by Israeli Arabs, who were thus exposed to hostile anti-Israel propaganda.

Then, in the lead-up to the 1967 war, Israeli leaders suddenly became aware that with all their detailed planning for a possible military confrontation with the Arab states, they had overlooked one crucial item. They had no effective way to rebuff the blustering propaganda of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and Palestinian leader Ahmad Shuqeiri, both of whom, in fire-breathing harangues, promised to "throw the Israelis into the sea."

All the anti-television rationale of the past was swept aside. Prof. Katz and his team were given an almost impossible mission: to introduce television broadcasts in both Hebrew and Arabic within a few months. The aim was to refute the virulent Arab propaganda. Prof. Katz and his team accomplished the task in eight months. Israel Television's first transmission was a broadcast of the armed forces parade on Independence Day, 1968. Afterwards, Katz admitted that if he had known in advance how complicated and problematic it would be to broadcast a full military parade, he would have chosen easier premiere for his enthusiastic but inexperienced crew.

The founding team was headquartered in a five-story edifice located in Romema, a west Jerusalem neighborhood. Erected in the 1960s, the building had been intended to house diamond polishing companies that were supposed to move to Jerusalem. But the diamond industry remained in the coastal region. The building, which was equally unsuitable for diamond polishing or television broadcasting, was renovated. It soon housed personnel who came from all over Israel, from schools and studios, and from veteran television stations around the world.

Their first task was to begin Arabic-language transmissions. The immediate goal: to modify the militaristic image Israel had acquired following its overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War. A variety of programs played up the country's achievements in agriculture, health care, education, and fostering Arab family life. Their success was proved by the thousands of letters that poured in from viewers in neighboring countries, many seeking advice on personal problems. Of the most popular programs was a weekly children's show called "Sami and Susu." So successful was it, that Hebrew subtitles had to be added for the Jewish children in Israel who watched it in huge numbers.

From its very inception, the costs were daunting. Katz was appalled to learn that a half-hour local entertainment show, could cost as much as $15,000, whereas a foreign program could be purchased for a fiftieth of that amount. This, he explained ruefully in an article summing up his experience in Israel television, was the source of the quip: "If you can't buy it, don't do it."

Not that there was anything intrinsically reprehensible about using purchased programs. Even a country so acutely aware of television's social role - in promoting a cultural renaissance, helping to ingather the exiles, and building a nation - needed to "open a window to the world," if only to gain respite from prolonged regional isolation. Besides, to fill the broadcast schedule every evening, seven days a week, would be nearly impossible without imported items such as westerns, British and American sitcoms, thrillers, and variety shows.

Prof. Katz saw that from the perspective of a social scientist taking into account the structure and roles of national television in the broadest sense, (particularly in small, young countries) the primary problem was how to exploit this very expensive medium, to supply information and mould culture, yet also to avoid the pitfalls. Some of the dangers are: a powerful tendency to prefer the marginal; a superficial emulation of America; and the politicizing of life in Israel.

Another common risk, social scientists note, is over-emphasizing the personal dimension in politics and preferring the politician with a "television personality" over one who delivers a message based on principles and values. Electioneering is different in the television age. Politicians may find it advantageous to "reach" supporters by "visiting" their home through the medium of television. The risk is that the trivial assumes grossly inflated importance or that a politician will project a self-image that is totally false.

It is not clear how successful the founders of Israeli television were in combating such tendencies. Communications scholars know that these dangers are not confined solely to television. Even without television, in McLuhan's "global village," insularity (assuming it is desirable) is not a real option, especially in a small but culturally diverse country like Israel.

The distinctive essence of television in Israel and its influence on society is probably best shown in the clear preference of the Israel public, which is reaffirmed in every survey, for news programs and news-based talk shows. It was not by chance that the planners of Channel Two, looking for ways to attract viewers, opted for talk shows based on current affairs rather than imported dramatic serials. Israelis are showing diminishing interest in such serials, which are anyway available on cable television.

In the 1987 survey, conducted during the IBA strike, 59 percent of those polled said that they missed the television news programs "very much" and 33 percent complained that they were being deprived of the current affairs interview shows on television. However, only 19 percent were upset at having to do without the prestigious and expensive locally-produced Friday evening entertainment program. If we divide television into three categories - entertainment, enrichment, and news - it emerges that what Israelis missed most during the strike were the news programs, followed by enrichment, with entertainment in last place. Another finding of this and other studies conducted at the time was that a large part of the Israeli population settled itself down every evening in front of the box and watched it, with hardly a break, until the end of the broadcasts at about one am.

Does the immense interest Israeli viewers show in news and current affairs reflect political savvy, particularly on issues related to foreign affairs and security? In a 1990 study, Dr. Ora Grabelsky, an authority on adult education, found that many Israelis do not understand key sentences in radio and television newscasts; this is true of political even more than economic issues. Viewers compensate by providing their own interpretations, which are often imaginative and "creative" for ideas with which they are not familiar.

Dr. Grabelsky's study helps explain another finding about the public's reaction to the IBA strike in 1987. Responses were often a function of age and educational level. Younger and more poorly-educated people are less tenaciously attached to television news programs. In contrast, all sectors of the population shared a marked preference for locally-produced entertainment shows over imported items.

Israelis, it was once thought, were addicted to soap-opera melodramas such as "Dallas" and "Dynasty." Even an otherwise dour leader like the late prime minister, Menahem Begin, did not hesitate to confess that he was a regular viewer of "Dallas." The cable television companies even chose to broadcast a South American melodrama at the sacred hour of the "Mabat" newscast on Israel Television. Public opinion surveys prove that viewers' tastes have neither changed nor is there a contradiction between their interest in melodramas and their preference for current affairs shows and local entertainment. The three companies that were awarded the franchises for Channel Two (each company has two broadcast days a week, the seventh day is rotated among them) chose a formula - after commissioning surveys that revolves around news and current affairs interview programs. The insertion of entertainment slots, featuring Israeli performers, in current affairs talk shows such as Channel One's "PoPolitika" and Dan Shilon's interview show on Channel Two are consistent with the findings of the surveys.

Perhaps under the influence of CNN, which already reaches more than 750,000 households in Israel, and perhaps because of their belief Israelis' hunger for news, both channels display a readiness to pre-empt regular programming in favor of live coverage of breaking stories. This goes beyond the event itself, to encompass reactions, commentary and coverage of residual developments.

Three examples are 4 May 1994, when Israel and the PLO signed the agreement for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho; and a week later, on the night of 10-11 May, when the two channels devoted the evening to covering the results of the elections to the Histadrut Federation of Labour, in which the challenger, Haim Ramon, was victorious; and in November, 1994, when Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement. Incidentally, the two channels compete not only in coverage of special events but also in regular interview programs. On some evenings the same personalities manage to appear on both channels, scurrying from one studio to the other.

That both channels crave to satisfy the public's curiosity about major events seems to conflict with Prof. Katz's ideas about television's impact on setting the "national agenda." The lesson of the current change in the status of television in Israel seems to be that television does not so much set the national agenda as follow in its wake. As long as the Israeli public displays an interest in a certain topic, television will reflect that interest. This is equally true of state television and commercial television.

Katz concedes that when it comes to major events, the two channels do discern the national agenda and give it expression. But he believes that this is not enough. He would like to see television play a natural role in the realization of participatory democracy.

In its first years, the studies show, Israel Television set the national agenda even in the realm of entertainment. Dramatic series produced by the BBC, such as "The Forsythe Saga," were so popular at social and public events were timed not to clash with the screening of each new episode. Nowadays, Israelis do not get so overwrought about television. Anyway, the proliferation of programs now makes it less likely that a mass audience will become obsessively attached to a particular program.

Where then, does the difference lie between the two channels in terms of shaping the image of Israeli society? Some argue that Channel One, constantly subject to intense political infighting before the appointment of its executive bodies and the approval of its budget, will unavoidably remain part of officialdom and be subject to the currently ruling party. Others claim that Israel Television's subordination to the government is steadily declining.

The present structure of the two television authorities, the one a state organ and the other a public body, with each answerable to an appointed committee which supposedly functions as an independent board of directors, is the result of legislation following political compromises, pressures, and recommendations of public commissions. The conflicting pressures caused such a lengthy delay in the operation of Channel Two that it finally began regular broadcasting just as cable television was making its entry on the scene.

Already in the first years of Israeli television, when it was barely possible to meet the economic demands of the new medium, there were calls for a second channel. Clearly a new channel could not be underwritten by the state or by means of imposing a second television licensing fee on the public. The solution, it was universally agreed, was that it would be commercial, to be financed by selling advertising, as in other countries.

The calls for a second channel were not prompted only by the public's appetite for a greater variety of programs. Experts claimed that only through competition could higher standards be achieved. Social scientists looked askance at the pressures that both major political camps exerted on state television. Only if the monopoly of a single channel was abolished, they argued, would it be possible to extricate the medium from the bear-hug of the politicians, dispel the complaints by both sides of partiality, and invoke independent journalistic and artistic criteria in television broadcasting.

One group that opposed the idea of setting up a second channel was the newspaper owners. They maintained that the volume of advertising pie was insufficient to sustain both a second television channel and the existence of an independent press in Israel. The experience of other countries, including some in western Europe, showed that the print press, whose function as the watchdog of democracy television could not fulfill, had taken a severe financial beating when substantial parts of advertising budgets were shifted to television.

The opponents of a second channel were also unconvinced, disagreeing with the argument that competition would necessarily improve quality. If the experience of others meant anything, they said, standards would suffer with both channels trying to win the popularity stakes. Besides, it was said, advertising, especially for imported products, would increase consumption and create a taste for luxury goods. The gravest fears in this regard focused on commercials aimed at children. Such advertising might set parents against children, the latter not understanding that their parents simply could not afford to satisfy their craving for products they had seen on television.

There was also the question of who would control the second channel. The officials of the IBA and various politicians wanted any new channel to be part of the Authority. This, they said, was the only way to prevent waste and duplication (why, for example, send two crews of reporters and technicians to cover an event?) and ensure that there would be no discrimination against the state channel. Others demanded that private elements be permitted to operate the new channel and that it be financed solely from advertising revenues.

In 1985, a public commission headed by former interior ministry director-general Chaim Kubersky recommended the establishment of a separate public authority for the new channel, to be modeled on the Independent Broadcasting Authority which then operated in Great Britain. The Kubersky Commission's report was not implemented and the bill it formulated was not submitted to the Knesset for enactment. Still, following some years of intensive lobbying and political power struggles, the principle was finally adopted of setting up a separate public body for commercial television. Cable television did not experience such tribulations, as its operation was enabled through a legislative amendment that privatized the Israeli telecommunications system.

Although a public committee exists to oversee programming standards on cable television, its intervention has been virtually nonexistent. The only clash the cable companies have had with the establishment has been over the denial of their request to broadcast commercials immediately.

If the cable companies are permitted to broadcast commercials, their already steep profits will be augmented even further. Cable television is highly lucrative and will become even more so once the process of linking subscribers is completed.

Since four groups competed for the three available Channel Two franchises, and since each group wanted to impress the selection committee, everyone signed up as many "stars" as they could from broadcasting and show business and pledged to produce expensive current affairs programs and provide investigative reportage. But before a year was out, the franchise holders were forced to trim expenses' forego some of their stars, and even cancel big budget investigative programs. The winners were the popular entertainment shows. Although it is still too early to draw final conclusions, some experts forecast that the cheap shows will push aside the better, but more expensive ones.

In the meantime, there are no signs that the Israeli public is complaining because Channel Two has not lived up to its promises. Surveys show that at nine PM, after the "Mabat" newscast on Channel One, there is a massive shift to the light programs of Channel Two. After nine PM, there are evenings in which at least two viewers are tuned to Channel Two for every one that continues to watch Channel One.

In their business plans all three winners of the Channel Two tender took into account losses during the first year of operation. There are indications that this forecast has been realized and that the losses of two of the broadcasting companies have in fact been considerably higher than had been anticipated. However, despite these results, there is a general feeling of satisfaction both among investors and the public, over the performance of Israel's commercial television channel during its first year of operation.

While the viewing audience has by no means abandoned Channel One, which is making valiant efforts to hold on to its viewers, it has proved that it also wants Channel Two. It wants it enough to make it economically viable. Advertisers, who in 1994, diverted more than 20 percent of their total advertising budgets to commercial television (at the expense of newspaper and billboard advertising) are also satisfied with the results. Thus, funds diverted to television advertising are likely to grow in the next few years.

Less satisfied with Channel Two programming is Shulamit Aloni, the minister of communications and culture. When signing the tenders for granting licenses to the first local private radio stations, Aloni made no bones about her deeply-felt hope that unlike commercial television, commercial radio would not "indulge in an overdose of programs of mindless parlor games and prizes whose sole purpose is to attract an audience."

Dissatisfaction is also expressed over the level of cable TV broadcasts. The cable companies, who according to some critics, were in effect awarded "a license to print money," are evading their obligation to produce original programs, particularly local newsreels, which require them to spend money.

The 44th annual State Comptroller's Report, published in May 1994, took the cable companies to task for not upholding the commitment with regard to original programming. Still, despite the report, it seems unlikely that the cable franchise holders can be pressured into producing original programs.

Incidentally, the state's revenues from the cable franchises are miniscule. In 1993 they stood at six million dollars, and even this was a major increase over previous years. By contrast, the income of the cable companies is currently in excess of $250 million per annum, a sum that will increase when the cable stations are permitted to screen commercials.

Both Channel Two and the cable companies see themselves as the rivals of the state television station. Not only does the IBA have the exclusive right to collect an annual licensing fee of $120 from each household that owns a television, it also augments its revenues by selling radio spots and by screening paid "service announcements" and "program sponsorships" on television. This "advertising" on the state television station, which is formally prohibited, is seen by the franchise holders as a flagrant circumvention of the regulations. The "service announcements" are ostensibly meant to encourage national goals, such as conserving water, preventing traffic accidents or encouraging the purchase of home-grown agricultural products. The "program sponsorships" are supposedly a form of contribution to the IBA, but in fact, the sponsors ensure that their name is repeated ceaselessly and the benefit is undoubtedly equal to that of a regular advertiser.

It is not yet fully clear what Israeli viewers will make of the cornucopia pouring into their lap with the onset of Channel Two and the expansion of cable television. Consequently, it is difficult to predict the character and shape of Israeli television in the latter half of the 1990s. Still, there are growing signs that Channel One and Channel Two will each develop its own distinct character by reducing areas of competition and producing its own brand of programming. The programming of cable television and the habits of its viewers are also in the formative stage.

To conclude: the abundance and variety that the Israeli television viewer will enjoy in the coming years will not necessarily lead him to spend more time in front of the box. Nor will it inevitably lead to a higher general standard of programs, or even a greater influence by television on the national agenda. Many believe that television's exponential growth will actually lead to less time devoted to viewing. We are unlikely to see a recurrence of the ardor with which the average Israeli welcomed television when it first arrived on the scene in 1968.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry