Israel’s English TV news enters the twilight zone

Five of seven staffers are leaving Wednesday, and departing editor has no idea what, if anything, will be broadcast as of Thursday

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Mitchell Barak, left, the founder of political communications firm Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications, being interviewed on Israel's IBA news (photo credit: courtesy Mitchell Barak)
Mitchell Barak, left, the founder of political communications firm Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications, being interviewed on Israel's IBA news (photo credit: courtesy Mitchell Barak)

Precisely 25 years after it debuted, Israel Television’s daily English-language news broadcast appears to be heading into the twilight, a barely noticed casualty of the protracted and controversial process of economic reform at the state-owned Israel Broadcasting Authority.

As of Thursday, October 1, IBA’s English News Editor Steve Leibowitz said, the service will have only two of its previous seven full-time staffers left, with Leibowitz and four others having opted for retirement or severance packages within the reform framework.

“It’s not clear what will happen as of tomorrow,” Leibowitz said Wednesday. “Obviously, they won’t be able to put out a full, 23-minute news broadcast with two members of staff.”

He said the English News might manage to limp along a little longer as a shortened seven-minute broadcast from the studio, with no reporters, but that the future was dismal.

“Nobody gave any thought to what would happen when most of the English staff left. And nobody has said there’ll even be an English news broadcast” in the planned new IBA, set to be established once the current authority shuts down, he added.

Leibowitz called the IBA English News “the bastard child” of the state broadcasting authority. Responsibility for the English service has been shifted among various departments over the years, and the broadcasts themselves have been shuttled around different channels and through numerous time slot changes, he said.

Steve Leibowitz (Courtesy)
Steve Leibowitz (Courtesy)

The English News started life with some fanfare, two presenters and relatively slick production on the IBA’s main Channel 1, and was screened in primetime during the Gulf War, noted Leibowitz, 64, who has been there the entire 25 years. Even though it then fell out of favor with the controllers, its opening news section was still shown on Channel 1 until recently, with an expanded broadcast on the less-watched Channel 33. But in the last few months, that Channel 1 slot was withdrawn, and its time slot on Channel 33 was shifted from 5 p.m. to a less attractive 4 p.m.

In a period where Israel battles against international demonization, and amid frequent talk in prime ministerial circles of the imperative for an Israeli counter to networks such as Al-Jazeera, the English News “had the potential to serve as the world’s window into Israel,” said Leibowitz. “But the government didn’t take advantage of that. It was never given the proper funding or attention.”

Despite all the time slot and channel shifts, the broadcasts have maintained a local audience of tens of thousands of households, with many more around the world watching on Shalom TV, Christian Trinity TV and the Internet, he said.

A senior IBA English employee, who asked not to be named, said that the management could at least have enabled a slightly smoother transition process if it hadn’t insisted that anyone who wanted to benefit from a NIS 105,000 ($26,000) bonus payment for voluntary retirement sign up by September 30.

With Leibowitz and another staffer already set to leave, that September 30 deadline prompted another three staffers to take the severance package, meaning only two staffers will still be employed as of Thursday. On Wednesday, management issued a new notice, giving staffers until October 30 to leave with that bonus payment intact — a shift that came too late to save IBA English from its drastic staffing reduction.

Leibowitz was still hoping on Wednesday afternoon that some kind of last-minute arrangement could be made, whereby some of those who are leaving are invited to work on a day-by-day arrangement to keep the broadcasts going, albeit on a skeletal basis. But he had no guarantees that this would be the case.

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