Window to the Middle East

A Producers Guide to Television in Israel

By David Michaelis

Israel has always been a news-obsessed society. Many Israeli households are perpetually tuned to television news. The country is simply too intimate, small, and stressed-out by years of war, occupation, and terror for people to be less than passionate about politics.

The Tribal FireIsraeli media sees itself as playing a role in building the Israeli “tribal” identity. They are trying to answer the needs of the audience and readers to position themselves in the Middle East and its upheavals. It is amazing how under these conditions there is a lively debate going on inside Israeli media.

Popular programs are the main newscast and A Wonderful Country, a satirical program that creates a common bond between people under siege. People can be happy to laugh at themselves, and also criticize themselves, as long as the basic assumption about why we fight is not questioned.

Lebanon War and the Tribe  The last war in Lebanon (2006) went through a very typical cycle. Israel’s TV viewers were all encouraged to think that Israel was winning another “easy” war. Only after the grand debacle, Israeli media turned around and asked hard questions about how and why the war plan did not bring about the wished-for defeat of Hizbullah.

In other words, the tribe went to war; the tribe asked questions only later because of the philosophy that “when the guns are being fired, you need to be silent.” Channel 10 TV, which is privately owned, was an exception. They were much more critical than other media outlets, and they gained ratings and credibility for being so. The government of Israel, although it operates a military censorship, recognizes the importance of this debate.

Military Censorship in Israel Under British Mandate law, all publications had to receive prior clearance from the military censor. Israel neither abolished nor applied this law. In 1948, an agreement signed between the government, the army, and the press determined that censorship would be based on mutual agreement in order to prevent breaches of state security. A ruling of the High Court of Justice in 1989 imposed limitations on the censor: censorship may be exercised only when it is certain that publication of the item in question would harm public safety. When an item is censored, the newspaper may appeal the censor’s ruling to a “committee of three,” composed of a member of the public (who serves as the chairman), a representative of the army, and a representative of the press. The decisions of the committee are binding, and over the years it has in many cases overruled the decision of the censor. 

With the exception of the nuclear bomb, Israeli military censorship has been relaxed over the last few years, especially with the diversity of satellite channels like Al Jazeera and others giving 24-hour breaking news coverage. During the last war in Lebanon some battles were almost covered in real time, making censorship difficult. The basic rule adapted by TV/radio correspondents is to not clearly identify the exact location of the event taking place.

Changes on the LandscapeDuring the eighties and nineties, the Israeli press underwent a process of significant change, not unlike that which occurred in Europe and North America. The media gradually came to be controlled by a limited number of organizations, whereas the papers published by political parties began to disappear. Today, three large, privately owned conglomerates based in Tel Aviv dominate the mass media in Israel. The issue of conflict of interest between corporate owners and the right of journalists to investigate the business community has become a source of concern to many.


About the Author 

David Michaelis serves on the board of directors of Internews Network and is the director of current affairs for Link TV in San Francisco. Born in Jerusalem, he created the first satellite two-way link between Tunis and Jerusalem in October 1993. He was a producer and senior editor at IBA (Israel Broadcasting Authority) from 1976 to 1998.


A Look at Channels in Israel

The field of electronic communications in Israel is undergoing a process of vigorous development. The quick transition from a monopoly to multiple channels was not unique to Israel. In many ways, it imitated processes seen in the 1970s and 1980s in Western Europe. If the government carries out its planned reforms, a variety of new broadcast outlets will be added to those operating, which currently include two national television channels and a network of regional TV cable stations. Israel also has a satellite multichannel distribution system called "YES."

The Israel Broadcasting Authority Set up along the lines of the BBC, it is responsible for radio (Kol Yisrael) and television (ITV), and is funded mainly by license fees on TV sets. About 20 percent of its revenue is from advertising.

Israel Television: Established in 1968, ITV operates two channels.

Channel One, its main channel, broadcasts news, original productions, children's and entertainment programs, and films. An hour and a half of each evening's broadcast is devoted to programs in Arabic. ITV's other channel, broadcast by satellite, was established in the early nineties.

The Second Television and Radio Authority: Established by law in 1993, it is responsible for the Second Television Channel and the regional radio stations. The authority, a public body, authorizes and supervises licensees, who are selected by tender. Licenses are limited to a four-to-six year period. Funding for these stations comes from advertising.

The Second TV Channel: Operated by three licensees, each broadcasting two days a week, plus Saturday done by rotation, the Second Channel provides a great deal of entertainment and films. It has its own news division, shared by the licensees.

Channel 10: A new, privately owned TV network with an excellent news department.

Educational Television Established in 1965, ETV today provides not only educational programming but also enrichment programs and broadcasts on current events. It broadcasts on Channels One and Two, as well as on cable TV. Funding is provided by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Cable TV: Cable TV, which began broadcasting in the late eighties, today reaches 65 percent of all households. The law governing cable TV divided the country into license areas, with one licensee per area and funding provided by user fees. The cable networks offer thirty to forty channels, many of them foreign, picked up by satellite. These include MTV, SKY NEWS, CNN, and BBC, as well as channels from Egypt, France, Germany, India, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Spain, Russia, and Turkey.


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