What's worrying Ruby?

Ruby Rivlin is worried.

Last week, in a burst of candor, Israel's Communications Minister Reuven Ruby Rivlin said he was "concerned about the phenomenon of various entrepreneurs, acting in contravention to their commitments, flouting actions and plans approved as preconditions for their franchise, entering into large-scope contractual relations, and then presenting the Communications Ministry and the Second Broadcasting Authority with a fact."

What is Ruby talking about? About the cable TV franchisees, who completely ignored the terms of their franchises granted 12 years ago? About the illegal contracts they signed with major American studios, hoping to finish off their rival, the satellite TV company YES? About their totally destroying multichannel TV in Israel, thus presenting the Communications Ministry with a fact?

Or perhaps Ruby has caught a whiff of the cable TV companies' next gambit? In their meeting tomorrow, they will be demanding that the chairwoman of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, Dorit Inbar, make sweeping changes in the terms set a few months back for the three companies to merge. The companies' method would seem to be a variation on that old theme "First get the permit, then kick CNN off the air, then hike up the price of the basic package of channels, and in general, do whatever you damn well please".

But no, Ruby isn't talking about the cable TV companies. He's never batted an eyelash, in public at least, about their recalcitrance towards regulators.

So maybe his concern touches on the Channel 2 franchisees? Their franchise expires in 2003 but with the kind help of battalions of lobbyists, PR agencies and their buddies at the Communications Ministry and Knesset, they managed to get two-year extensions, without paying the state a penny for the privilege.

No, that isn't what Rivlin is worrying about: the main lobbyist pushing for their extension was none other than himself. The joke that Tevel, Keshet and Reshet make of their commitments to the state hasn't cost him a wink of sleep, because he thinks their cause, and that of the cable TV companies, is worthy.

Reviving the walking dead

So what's worrying Rivlin? Aside from the cable companies, Channel 2, and their owners there is no other real power in Israel's media world in these desiccated days.

Turns out that what's worrying Ruby is the signs of life evinced in that walking cadaver better known as Channel 10.

For those not in the know of Israel's TV esoterica, Channel 10 went live in January 2002.

It was a resounding flop. Within a month, Channel 10 Israel's second commercial channel after Channel 2 had become the biggest marketing disgrace in many, many years.

So many hopes had ridden on Channel 10, including that it would break Channel 2's monopoly over commercial television. But its rating hovered at a humiliating level, its income was peanuts, and its losses were heart-stopping.

Until recently, the industry assumed that its shareholders, led by tycoon Yossi Maiman, would simply shut it down, after realizing that competing with Channel 2 in these terrible times would cost hundreds of millions.

Indeed, minutes of meetings by Channel 10's board disclose that some of its shareholders led by Alfred Akirov wanted to cut their losses and get rid of the thing before it ate them.

But Yossi Maiman wouldn't let go. A month ago he appointed a fresh management headed by Modi Friedman, which charged at the market with gusto, trying to breathe life back into the carcass. Within a few weeks the new brooms had swept in fat new contracts in sports. Industry sources believe the new guys in town will spare no effort to make Channel 10 a major player in commercial TV.

So what does Rivlin do? Thank the good Lord that there are still some lunatics like Maiman around, to pour countless millions into building a business to compete with the monopoly?

No, he does not. Rivlin changes his spots and suddenly remembers a few regulatory nuances, commitments to the state, and a few other things that we'd thought he held in contempt, deeming them the province of bothersome watchdogs like the Antitrust Authority or Justice Ministry.

The claim that Channel 10 should submit its broadcasting program to the Communications Ministry before closing deals is laughable. It is clear that Channel 10 is embroiled in a day to day war with Channel 2 over signing on programs and star quality. The level of uncertainty at which it operates is mind-boggling.

Under the terms the minister demands, it wouldn't be able to air any programs at all, because its management can't know from one week to the next, let alone from one month to the next, what will be.

If we weren't discussing Rivlin, we might have thought he was disappointed that Channel 10 didn't set its sights higher than merely competing with Channel 2. That it wasn't trying to create a better quality of product, but is basically trying to be a Channel 2 double, with lots of game shows, travel and talk shows, and the rest of that lowbrow fare Channel 2 has supplied over the last decade.

But when the complaints about the quality of the shows on Channel 10 are coming from Rivlin and Channel 2, they cannot be taken seriously. That story about Channel 2 trying to become a "quality channel" like Channel 4 is amusing: Channel 2 wants to make money. It would tell the regulator anything to kill off the competition.

Channel 10's chance of providing quality programming is about as remote as the chance that Channel 2 will start considering culture, rather than profit.

Yet Channel 10 is the only chance of breaking Channel 2's stranglehold over television advertising, and expanding the competition over content. Channel 10's chances aren't good, but if it closes, we'll be stuck with the Channel 2 monopoly for years to come. But that, Rivlin doesn't worry about.

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